WELLINGTON: Fiji lock Leone Nakarawa will return to test rugby for the first time since the last World Cup in the first of two tests against New Zealand this weekend.
Coach Vern Cotter on Thursday named the 33-year-old former European Player of the Year in his second row alongside Temo Mayanavanua for Saturday's match against the All Blacks in Dunedin.
Nakarawa, best known for his outrageous offloads, has struggled with injury and fitness over the last 18 months and Irish province Ulster last month pulled out of a deal to sign him after a medical examination.
A veteran of three World Cups and an Olympic gold medallist in sevens in Rio, Nakarawa will bring a wealth of experience to a Fiji pack playing in front of young scrumhalf Simione Kuruvoli.
"We will need leadership and the forwards will have to be very good because we have to protect Simione Kuruvoli, who is only playing his second game with Fiji," Cotter said in a news release.
"Leone Nakarawa coming back in the team has helped cohesion in the lineout and lineout calling as he brings experience."
Kuruvoli made his debut as a replacement against Georgia in the one Nations Cup test Fiji were able to play last year after a rash of COVID-19 cases in the squad forced the forfeit of their matches against France, Scotland and Italy.
The 22-year-old gets his chance after the more experienced halfback options of Frank Lomani, Moses Sorovi and Teti Tela were unable to enter New Zealand because of a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Australia.
Australia-based flyhalf Ben Volavola will start, however, and powerhouse left winger Nemani Nadolo will be a familiar face to New Zealand rugby fans after two successful seasons with the Canterbury Crusaders before he moved to Europe.
The All Blacks, who thrashed Tonga 102-0 last week, will host the Fijians in a second test in Hamilton on July 17.
Team: 15-Kini Murimurivalu, 14-Eroni Sau, 13-Waisea Nayacalevu, 12-Levani Botia (captain), 11-Nemani Nadolo, 10-Ben Volavola, 9-Simione Kuruvoli, 8-Albert Tuisue, 7-Mesulame Kunavula, 6-Johnny Dyer, 5-Leone Nakarawa, 4-Temo Mayanavanua, 3-Mesake Doge, 2-Samuel Matavesi, 1-Peni Ravai
Replacements: 16-Peni Narisia, 17-Haereiti Hetet, 18-Leeroy Atalifo, 19-Tevita Ratuva, 20-Peceli Yato, 21-Setareki Tuicuvu, 22-Eneriko Buliruarua, 23-Manasa Mataele
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Peter Rutherford)