The All Blacks open their World Cup build-up with a Test against Fiji on Friday, resting key players but stressing they will not fall into the same trap as Australia did against Samoa.
The one new international is Otago Highlanders lock Jarrad Hoeata while teammate and flyhalf Colin Slade gets his first start in only his second Test.
But coach Graham Henry has enough depth in his squad to have 531 Test caps among the run-on side with another 216 to call on from the bench.
“This is an important test for us as we kick off this year’s Test season,” Henry said following the team announcement on Wednesday.
“You just need to look at how Fiji’s Pacific neighbours Samoa played against Australia on the weekend to know that if we underestimate Fiji, we do so at our peril.”
Samoa last weekend scored an upset 32-23 win over the Wallabies — who rank third in the world behind the All Blacks and South Africa — but fielded a vastly under-strength side against the Pacific islanders.
Henry has taken the opportunity to rest several members of the Canterbury Crusaders who played in the Super 15 final less than two weeks ago and there is an experimental look about the forwards to face the physical Fijians.
Wyatt Crockett, in the squad as injury cover for Tony Woodcock, returns to the All Blacks for the first time since 2009 to join Andrew Hore and Ben Franks in the front row.
In the middle row, newcomer Hoeata will partner with 61-Test veteran Ali Williams who is making his comeback after being sidelined by injury for two years.
Richie McCaw, who missed most of the Super 15 season because of a foot injury, will captain the team from the flank but his regular loose forward partners Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read have been replaced by Adam Thomson and Liam Messam.
But in anticipation of what could be expected from the bruising Fijians, Henry has opted for five forwards on the bench and only two backs.
The backs replacements include Dan Carter if there is any problem with the novice halves pairing of Jimmy Cowan and the rookie Slade.
The midfield backs are the established pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith with Zac Guildford, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muiliaina filling the back three places.
The performances of Guildford, Sivivatu and Slade along with the loose forwards will be under the microscope as Henry weighs up his options before naming his final World Cup squad after the Tri-Nations series.
“We have got some real competition for places and it’s exciting for those players picked. They will be keen to put their best foot forward,” Henry said.
The Fiji team will be named late on Wednesday when the side arrives in Dunedin.
The last time the All Blacks played Fiji was in Auckland in 2005, which they easily won 91-0.
Team: Mils Muliaina, Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Colin Slade, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Richie McCaw (captain), Adam Thomson, Ali Williams, Jarrad Joeata, Ben Franks, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: Corey Flynn, John Afoa, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Piri Weepu, Daniel Carter, Ben Smith. — AFP