New Zealand warn Tonga All Blacks are on road back to the top

Auckland (AFP) –


New Zealand have warned Tonga they will be shown no mercy in Auckland on Saturday, with the once world-dominant All Blacks marking the Test as the start of their quest to return to the top.

"If we really want to be where we want to be, we're going to have to be good right now," coach Ian Foster declared as he named a strong line-up and dismissed suggestions the All Blacks could go easy on a hastily cobbled Tonga team.

The All Blacks will have 372 Test caps o the pitch at the start while Tonga, finding it impractical to call on their experienced Europe-based players during the Covid-19 pandemic, have nine debutants starting and four more on the bench.

"It's a Test match and they're representing their country and we expect the same passion we'd expect out of any international team," Foster said when questioned about the lopsided nature of the contest.

The three-times world champion All Blacks ruled rugby as the undisputed number one side from 2009 to 2018 but were knocked off their pedestal by Ireland before the 2019 World Cup, where they finished third.

In 2020, Foster's first year in a two-year contract as head coach, they were disappointing with only three wins from six Tests, including a first-ever loss to Argentina.

If Foster is to be reappointed to take the side through to the 2023 World Cup, he knows he needs the All Blacks to make a powerful statement this year.

"Our goal is to be number one. That's where we want the All Blacks to be and this is our first Test," he said.

Following Tonga, the All Blacks play Fiji twice before the much tougher challenges against Australia, Argentina and reigning World Cup champions South Africa in the Rugby Championship.

That will be followed by a European tour with Tests against France and Ireland.

Veteran hooker Dane Coles, who starts in his 75th Test against Tonga, said last year's 50 percent win record was not good enough.

"It's good that Foz (Foster) has laid down that vision for us. We've got to get this team back to where we belong. But it's not going to be easy," Coles said.

A raft of midfield injuries has seen Quinn Tupaea earn his first Test cap in the only surprise in the All Blacks starting 15.

The in-form Richie Mo'unga won the right to the 10 jersey with Damian McKenzie at fullback with Foster saying double world player of the year Beauden Barrett needed more time to adjust to the intensity of New Zealand after a season in Japan.

Foster has rested Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor from the match-day 23 after their heavy Super Rugby schedules.

In addition to Tupaea, prop George Bower, flanker Ethan Blackadder and scrum-half Finlay Christie are set to make their Test debuts off the bench.