"We don't really care who they have playing for them, we'll just get out there and give it to them, and see if they can handle it." So said Finau Maka, the captain of Tonga, and they may have been the bravest words ever spoken by a captain on the eve of a World Cup match against a team as threatening as New Zealand, who know what it is to put three-figure scores on South Sea islanders who have the misfortune to show up in All Black country at the wrong moment.
Maka was a stand-out loose forward when the Tongans staged their wondrous uprising in France four years ago, helping his country beat Samoa and scare the pants off South Africa, who very nearly lost a compelling game in Lens and certainly would have done had they not recognised the danger in the nick of time and introduced a raft of front-line players off the bench. Those achievements were considerable, but they will pale into utter insignificance if today's opening encounter in Auckland turns out to be anything other than a turkey shoot.
In recent discussions, the All Blacks have talked up the game as precisely the kind of contest they need to underpin a successful campaign: challenging in the physical sense, but generous in terms of scoring opportunity. "There's no complacency: we didn't want a soft pool and we haven't got one," said Wayne Smith, the longest-serving member of the New Zealanders' coaching staff and also the most revered. "They're good rugby players, the Tongans, and they'll test us athletically. I think it will be a positive."
The reality could be something less than that, although there should be some fun and games in the opening 20 minutes if the Tongans find a way of surviving the initial waves of New Zealand attacks. A victory margin of 50 points plus is far from unlikely, even though the hosts are holding back the brilliant centre Conrad Smith, and if this comes to pass, the age-old fear of too many soft pool matches will rear its head once again, especially as two of New Zealand's remaining three matches will be against Canada and Japan, neither of whom can expect anything other than a thorough shellacking.
There will be much interest in the performance of Richard Kahui, a centre operating on the wing. There is a growing feeling among the New Zealand cognoscenti that Graham Henry and his fellow All Black selectors have placed their chips on the wrong numbers by dispensing with both Hosea Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu, two of the most punishing wide runners in the sport. Kahui has an opportunity to make a name for himself here, but if good chances go begging, the rumblings will increase.
It would be nice to think that Tonga, poor cousins in a financially deprived corner of the rugby landscape, can revisit the heights of 2007, but they are not as strong as they were in France. New Zealand? They look very strong indeed in this company.
New Zealand I Dagg, R Kahui, M Nonu, SB Williams, I Toeava, D Carter, J Cowan; T Woodcock, A Hore, O Franks, B Thorn, A Williams, J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), V Vito. Replacements C Flynn, B Franks, A Boric, S Whitelock, P Weepu, C Slade, C Jane.
Tonga V Lilo, V Iongi, S Hufanga, A Ma'ilei, S Piutau, K Morath, T Moa; S Tonga'uiha, A Lutui, T Filise, P Hehea, J Tuineau, S Kalamafoni, F Maka (capt), V Ma'afu. Replacements E Taukafa, A Taumalolo, K Pulu, S Timani, S Vahafolau, S Fisilau, A Fatafehi.
Referee G Clancy (Irl). TV: ITV 1, 9.15-11.30amReuse content