Sonny Bill Williams will play an impact role in the big games and the only selection decision remaining for All Black coach Graham Henry is who plays fullback.
Assistant coach Steve Hansen, fronting the media in Hamilton, confirmed that Conrad Smith would play in the centres against Japan on Friday night with Ma’a Nonu moving from outside centre to inside centre. Williams should be among the reserves with in-form fullback Israel Dagg.
Loyalty to veteran fullback Mils Muliaina will see the Chiefs-based player rewarded with his 99th Test cap in his home town.
‘You might see someone like Mils (Muliaina) get a start so we can see which one of those two is playing the best to go through the rest of the tournament,’ said Hansen, who added there would not be wholesale changes for the remainder of the tournament.
The All Blacks picked what many believed was there strongest available 22 in the 30-14 win against Australia in Auckland six weeks ago, but since that match Henry made 12 changes to the side that lost to South Africa in Port Elizabeth, 11 changes to that side which then lost to Australia in Brisbane and nine changes to that side which then beat Tonga in the World Cup opener.
Many in New Zealand believe the All Blacks coach has again got it wrong by not settling on his best team earlier and building momentum and continuity. Australian coach Robbie Deans has played the same team since the first match of the Tri Nations – and he has won four of the last five Tests including winning the Tri Nations trophy.
Hansen defended the path the All Blacks coaches have taken and said within the squad everyone believed it was the right approach.
‘We’ve had one game, we selected a side that we believe was pretty much the strongest side we could have picked for that game (against Tonga) and the you’ll see the core of that side again on Friday.
‘But in saying that it is a long tournament and you are going to need to bring people in and out of it on occasions but not wholesale changes.
‘We’re not worried about what other people are saying, our job is to make sure we stay to the plan we’ve elected and we’re confident that our plan is the right one.
‘Everyone at the moment out there is feeling a bit of pressure because it’s been 24 years since we’ve had Webb Ellis, but we’re sure of the road we need to take and we’re taking that road.
‘We’re only one game into it and you just need to trust us that we’ll get this task done.’
Dagg’s form has been sensational, in Port Elizabeth and in Auckland, and the loyalty and sentiment to Muliaina could prove costly. He has offered very little as an attacking threat this season and looks a spent force. It is unlikely the All Blacks coaches will leave him stranded on 99 Tests and to compensate for this loyalty may select Dagg on the wing, which throws out the balance of the back three.
Influential No 8 Kieran Reid has still not recovered from his ankle injury and Richie McCaw, if not rested, will become the first All Black to 100 Tests.