All Blacks to face Tonga in likely rugby test mismatch

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The All Blacks will play Tonga on Saturday in their first test of 2021. It may prove to be a major mismatch.

New Zealand head coach Ian Foster will use the match to tentatively introduce some newcomers to test rugby, examining the depth of a 36-man squad of full-time professionals.

Tonga has had no choice but to name 13 uncapped players in its match lineup, delving into New Zealand’s second and third-tier provinces and even into amateur club teams to assemble a team. Tonga’s best players, based in Europe, are not available for this match because of pandemic travel restrictions.

Some commentators have expressed concern for the safety of the young Tonga players, many of whom have jobs outside rugby and who will face a grim physical challenge from of New Zealand’s highly-tuned athletes hardened by a full Super Rugby season.

The Tongan players might at least be able to recount in years to come how they faced the famous All Blacks haka and list the players they shared the field with at Mount Smart Stadium in South Auckland. The All Blacks will play a test at the stadium — the home of rugby league’s New Zealand Warriors — for the first time because of South Auckland’s substantial Polynesian population which will swell crowd numbers.

The All Blacks have been accused of giving the cold shoulder to their Pacific Island neighbors, seldom playing tests against Tonga, Samoa or Fiji. When Italy cancelled a scheduled tour this month because of travel fears during the pandemic, New Zealand took the opportunity of creating a rare festival of Pacific test matches in July.

After Saturday’s one-off test against Tonga, the All Blacks will play Fiji for the first time in back-to-back tests.

There are concerns that far from celebrating Pacific rugby, the matches will only highlight the gulf between rugby’s first and second-tier nations, its have and have nots. Even Fiji, with a roster full of players who are stars in competitions in France, Britain and Japan, are not thought likely to be competitive because of an inadequate preparation.

All Blacks coaches have been testy when questioned about Saturday’s likely mismatch, suggesting predictions of a huge winning margin are belittling or disrespectful.

“It doesn’t really matter to us,” assistant coach John Plumtree said. “We’ve got a test match to play and we’re just worried about our own thing."

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Steve Mcmorran , The Associated Press

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