The opening match of the 2011 World Cup - drama all of its own. Paul Dobson previews the showdown between the hosts, New Zealand, and Tonga.
There is the build up, the anthems, the war dances (sipi tau and haka), George Clancy's whistle, the kick-off - and then the relief that at last it has begun with all the signs of seven weeks of success ahead of it.
The result of the match does not matter as much as that it is on - on at last, thank the heavens it's on at last.
Of course, the result matters to New Zealand and its people, but surely there cannot be a rugby soul in the world that believes that Tonga, for all that they will try with great guts, can win.
New Zealand have shown their respect for the game by choosing a great side. That includes Israel Dagg at fullback, who in defeat in Port Elizabeth showed more skill and elan than veteran Mils Muliaina, one of the greats of recent rugby, could muster in two previous victories.
In the Tri-Nations, just when New Zealand were looking good, they tumbled to two defeats, one with a 'weakened' team, if any All Black team can ever be labelled weakened, and one with a best side for the Tri-Nations Final.
Tonga's warm-up has been so-so.
They beat the United States, Samoa and Fiji (twice) and lost (just) to Japan (twice), Fiji, Italy A and England Saxons.
Their opponents are not quite in the same league as New Zealand's - Australia and South Africa with a 61-14 win over Fiji en passant.
But then Tonga have not always been able to obtain the release of their top players playing in abroad - and only one of their 30 World Cup squad plays in Tonga.
It's just so hard to see where the Ikale Tahi can beat the All Blacks, even if lots of island people support them and pray hard. After all seven of the Tongan side are born in New Zealand.
Players to Watch:
For New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Owen Franks - while wondering how those two wings, out of position, are going to do - not that the Tongans will be too fast for them. Then you are going to watch the centres in this massive All Black backline - Ma'a Nonu at outside centre and Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre. Perhaps the plan is to contain the physicality of the Tongans, perhaps it is a test, above all of Williams. It's hard to see that this would be the first-choice All Black line-up. Perhaps they are protecting Conrad Smith, their cleverest three-quarter.
For Tonga: Flyhalf Kurt Morath, centre Suka Hufanga and Finau Maka of the commanding presence may well be worth looking at.
Head to Head: Hookers - Andrew Hore versus Aleki Lutui with neither man likely to give way. Props Taufa'ao Felise versus Tony Woodcock, flanks Sione Kalamafoni versus Jerome Kaino and Viliami Ma'afu against surprise package Victor Vito. In the backs there will be what looks an uneven battle between Sonny Bill Williams and Andrew Ma'ilei.
2003: New Zealand won 91-7, Brisbane
2000: New Zealand won 102-0, Albany
1999: New Zealand won 45-9, Bristol
Prediction: New Zealand to win by well over 50 points. But there is the niggling memory of Tonga versus South Africa in 2007 and a great performance by the Ikale Tahi.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Richard Kahui, 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Isaia Toeava, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Cory Jane.
Tonga: 15 Vunga Lilo, 14 Viliame Iongi, 13 Suka Hufanga, 12 Andrew Ma'ilei, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Finau Maka (captain), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joe Tu'ineau, 4 Paino Hehea, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ephraim Taukafa, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Kisi Pulu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Alipate Fatafehi.
Date: Friday, September 9
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 20.30 (08.30 GMT)
Expected weather: Fine weather, with light winds. High of 16°C, low of 7°C
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland))
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Stuart Terheege (England)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
By Paul Dobson
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