(Reuters) - The All Blacks pack has another chance to shake out the cobwebs while a potentially game-breaking combination will be blooded in midfield when New Zealand begin their Rugby Championship campaign against Argentina on Friday.
Mindful the World Cup opener against the Pumas at Wembley Stadium is less than two months away, coach Steve Hansen has stuck with close to his best pack to take on the combative visiting forwards at Rugby League Park in Christchurch.
It is the backline, however, that creates the most interest with Ma‘a Nonu, arguably in the form of his life at inside center, taking the number 13 shirt to allow code-swapper Sonny Bill Williams to slot in beside him.
They will provide an immense punch in the midfield to counteract Argentina’s rushing defense, with Nonu’s straight running likely to benefit from his partner’s ability to offload in the tackle.
Attention will also be focused on debutant winger Waisake Naholo, who has impressed with a storming Super Rugby season and could be a trump card in the World Cup if he can step up to test level.
Opponents of the world champions in England might be more than a little concerned at having to face the bulk and pace of Naholo and the prolific Julian Savea out wide.
Israel Dagg has been retained at fullback despite being one of the many players who looked rusty last week in stifling conditions in Samoa, where the All Blacks needed flyhalf Dan Carter’s place-kicking to get them home 25-16.
Carter and captain Richie McCaw will be playing their final tests in front of their home Canterbury crowd, although there will be precious little sentiment if the All Blacks manage to lose their first game to the Pumas in their 21st encounter.
Argentina will have taken heart from New Zealand’s sloppy performance at the breakdown against Samoa and experienced loose forwards Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Manuel Leguizamon are determined to provide another stern test on Friday.
“We have put a massive amount of detail into the breakdown,” Lobbe told reporters in Christchurch this week.
“Last year, we got the highest percentage of quick ball. Everyone talks that in international rugby, you have to have rucks cleared between 0 and 3 seconds. We managed to get a lot of it last year. For us, it’s very important.”
Lobbe felt his side were far better than they were when he led them in their maiden Rugby Championship campaign three years ago.
“We try to have a lot more than just the passion and the energy,” he added.
“We are trying to be well-controlled and play [to] our game plan. We are trying to play a lot with the ball, be aggressive on defense and attack. We are making little steps forward.”
(The story corrects number of tests in eighth para)
Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney