The All Blacks will field a strong team for their opening match of the World Cup. The team reflects a blend of experience and youth and continues the faith in its in-form players.
The forwards were perhaps the most predictable with Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala starting once more in the front row, and the new-look loose forward trio of captain Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane looking to provide relentless speed and strength around the field.
Scott Barrett returns after his suspension as locking partner with fellow Crusader Sam Whitelock, forcing Patrick Tuipulotu onto the bench. Tuipulotu had a powerful presence in the last Test match against Australia and some may feel he was unlucky not to make the starting line-up. If he plays like he did against Australia when he comes on later in the game, his impact could be huge.
Aaron Smith starts again as halfback and he will be an instrumental as ever for enabling the All Blacks to play at speed, both physically and mentally.
His will be a classic encounter with South African halfback and playmaker Faf de Klerk. Richie Mo-unga starts at No.10 with Beauden Barrett starting once more at No.15.
If both players are given time and space to make an impact on the game the South Africans will be in for a long night. Look for South Africa to throw themselves hard at Mo’unga, and Test Barrett and the in-form, but relative newcomers on the wings, Sevu Reece and George Bridge, with high kicks.
The experienced Ryan Crotty meanwhile, returns as the starting second five-eight, with the solid, in-form Anton Leinert Brown playing at centre.
The strength of the team is also reflected in its bench, with several seasoned players expected to provide significant impact later in the game (e.g., Codie Taylor, TJ Penenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith).
In fact, few would have grumbled had the players on the bench started the match. The one surprise perhaps is Shannon Frizell in the Match Day 23 as he has only recently joined the team as a replacement for Luke Jacobson whose concussion issues caught up with him after the team had arrived in Japan.
The All Blacks will likely try to play at pace and run the South Africans down over 80 minutes. The extent to which they can do just that will be a function of the amount of ball the forwards can provide against a large, physical and mobile South African pack, whether South African deliberately slows things down, and the success of the kicking games of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard.
The latest weather forecast is for good weather on Saturday night here in Yokohama. It will be a gripping, absorbing game. It will be the benchmark for the games that follow in this World Cup.
And all those other strong contenders for the William Ellis Trophy will be watching with interest, and, one suspects, concern, because if both teams play to their full potential we may well be looking at two powerful foes in a dress rehearsal for the final match of the tournament on November 2nd.
All Blacks Match Day 23 to play South Africa
Forwards: 1. Joe Moody (41 Tests), 2. Dane Coles (64), 3. Nepo Laulala (20)
4. Samuel Whitelock (112), 5. Scott Barrett (32)
6. Ardie Savea (34), 7. Sam Cane (63), 8. Kieran Read – captain (122)
Backs: 9. Aaron Smith (87), 10. Richie Mo’unga (12), 12. Ryan Crotty (45) 13. Anton Lienert-Brown (38), 11. George Bridge (5), 14. Sevu Reece (3), 15. Beauden Barrett (78)
Forwards: 16. Codie Taylor (45), 17. Ofa Tuungafasi (30), 18. Angus Ta’avao (8), 19. Patrick Tuipulotu (25), 20. Shannon Frizell (5)
Backs: 21. TJ Perenara (59), 22. Sonny Bill Williams (53), 23. Ben Smith (80)