<
>

Preview: New Zealand vs. Tonga -- All Blacks aiming to top Pool C

New Zealand are already through to the quarterfinals and Tonga are out of the competition, but that doesn't mean Friday's clash will be an exhibition. The All Blacks, favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup later this month, need a victory to ensure they finish top of Pool C and avoid a likely last-eight clash with Ireland, should Joe Schmidt's men beat France on Sunday. Their last meeting with Ireland saw the All Blacks win by just two points and, while their recent performances against the French have been rocky, Steve Hansen's men will be keen to avoid an Irish side that look like serious contenders in this World Cup. Tonga, on the other hand, are aiming to secure third spot in the pool and qualification for the 2019 tournament in Japan -- not to mention playing for pride against their Pacific neighbours.

Team news

New Zealand will be without skipper Richie McCaw after the flanker picked up a knock to his hip in the victory over Georgia, with Sam Cane taking his place at openside and Kieran Read assuming the captain's responsibilities. However, despite McCaw's absence, the All Blacks will be celebrating the career of another veteran at St James' Park when they award Ma'a Nonu his 100th cap. He will be partnered in the midfield by fellow 33-year-old Conrad Smith as coach Steve Hansen names his strongest available squad to take on the Tongans.

Tonga have made just one chance to the side that lost to Argentina last Sunday, with Latiume Fosita replacing Sione Piukala at inside-centre. That switch adds a dash of youth to the experienced Tonga line-up that set an old-age record against the Pumas. The average age of the side to face New Zealand is 30 years and 235 days. Against Argentina, it was a decidedly mature 31 year and 38 days.

New Zealand

Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Waisake Naholo, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams.

Tonga

Vungakoto Lilo, Telusa Veainu, Siale Piutau, Latiume Fosita, Fetu'u Vainikolo, Kurt Morath, Sonatane Takulua; Viliami Ma'afu, Nili Latu, Sione Kalamafoni, Joseph Tuineau, Tukulua Lokotui, Halani 'Aulika, Elvis Taione, Soane Tonga'uiha.

Replacements: Paula Ngauamo, Sona Taumalolo, Sila Puafisi, Sitiveni Mafi, Jack Ram, Samisoni Fisilau, Viliami Tahitua, Will Helu.

Key head-to-head

Tonga skipper Nili Latu will be plying his trade with Newcastle Falcons next season so will hope to settle into Tyneside quickly on Friday. However, out to spoil his bedding-in period will be All Black sensation Sam Cane, who looks every inch the ready-made replacement for the ageing Richie McCaw. The breakdown battle between the experience Latu and the energetic Cane is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Key stats

*Ma'a Nonu will start alongside Conrad Smith in a 59th test, which extends the world record by a starting centre combination.

*Friday will see the fewest changes Tonga have made between successive World Cup matches since 2003. In that year, they made no changes to the side that lost to Wales and then faced the All Blacks. New Zealand won that match 91-7.

*The All Blacks have won all eight Tests they have played with Kieran Read as skipper. Back-row partner Sam Cane has also been a victorious captain, leading the side to victory against Namibia earlier in Pool C.

Odds

The All Blacks are clear favourites, with Unibet pricing a New Zealand victory at 1/4. A Tonga win is offered at 37/13, but in truth an All Blacks victory by more than 13 points at 1/34 looks good value.

Weather

The weather leading off the final weekend of pool-stage action has been mixed to say the least, but by Friday evening Newcastle should be enjoying a mild autumnal evening. There might be a hint of cloud cover, but temperatures of 12 degrees Celsius and little indication of wind suggest it will be a perfect evening for rugby.

Prediction

New Zealand will be aiming to build momentum going into the quarterfinals and Hansen's selection of a mostly full-strength XV suggests they mean business in Newcastle. Tonga will leave everything on the field, but they'll be no match for the world's No.1-ranked side, and could lose by 20 points or more.