AUCKLAND: The All Blacks ease into their international season against an undermanned Tonga in Auckland on Saturday (Jul 3), the first step in a campaign to restore credibility after a shaky first year under coach Ian Foster.
Foster inherited a side on the wane in the final years of Steve Hansen's tenure, and one in need of regeneration after the retirement of a slew of elite players following their 2019 World Cup semi-final exit.
Though the All Blacks claimed the Tri-Nations trophy and kept the Bledisloe Cup out of Australian hands, three wins from six matches and a first-ever loss to Argentina left Foster with little goodwill by the end of 2020.
Not a great deal has gone right since for Foster, who has lost regular captain Sam Cane and a number of first-choice players to serious injuries during Super Rugby.
Tonga, forced to field a slew of debutants on Saturday due to COVID-19-related travel curbs, are unlikely to provide a major test of the All Blacks' strength in depth.
But anything less than a thrashing of the Pacific islanders will be certain to raise the pressure on Foster.
"After COVID disrupted our season last year, we felt a little bit distanced from our fans playing most of our games overseas, so what's in front of us this weekend is very exciting," he said this week.
Foster has included four uncapped All Blacks in his matchday squad, including starting inside centre Quinn Tupaea, and kept stalwarts like lock Brodie Retallick and scrumhalf Aaron Smith in reserve for the subsequent two-Test series against Fiji.
But the side to face Tonga is by no means a "B-team", with a near full-strength pack led by lock-captain Sam Whitelock and hooker Dane Coles.
Richie Mo'unga has been given first chance to impress at flyhalf, consigning Beauden Barrett to the bench in a change of tack after the pair were used as dual playmakers last year.
Tonga were hammered 92-7 by the All Blacks in 2019 in the last match on New Zealand soil before the World Cup in Japan.
The Pacific islanders' best result against the New Zealanders in six matches was a 41-10 defeat at Eden Park in 2011.
Tonga coach Toutai Kefu's preparations for Saturday suffered a late blow, with replacement prop Tau Koloamatangi scratched from the side over an eligibility problem.
While Foster will use the game to test some fringe players, Tonga see it as a chance to warm up for 2023 World Cup qualifiers against Samoa in New Zealand in coming weeks.