WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Ma'a Nonu has been passed fit to start at inside center for New Zealand in Saturday's opening Rugby Championship test against Australia and is set to start his 80th test despite being unable to win a contract at provincial level.

The 31-year-old has played Super Rugby for the Wellington-based Hurricanes, Auckland-based Blues and Dunedin-based Highlanders over the past three years. But after leaving the Highlanders at the end of last season, he has not been able to find a New Zealand team willing to take him on.

Nonu will continue his long-standing midfield partnership with Conrad Smith and will play outside flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who will make his 23rd appearance in place of the injured Dan Carter.

Carter was ruled out of the match after aggravating a calf muscle injury during a warm-up match last Friday.

Ryan Crotty, who has been named on the bench as midfield cover, is the only uncapped player in the squad for the first match of the four-nation Rugby Championships. Crusaders center Crotty was called into the squad this week as a replacement for the injured Francis Saili and now has the chance to make an unexpected All Blacks debut.

Flanker Steven Luatua will start a test for the first time as a replacement at blindside flanker for Liam Messam, who strained a hamstring in Thursday's pre-departure training session. Coach Steve Hansen said it was a serious injury that will sideline Messam for several weeks.

Captain Richie McCaw will return from an eight-months "sabbatical" to play his first major match of the season and to lead New Zealand in his 117th test. McCaw took a break from all rugby after the test against England at Twickenham last December.

He returned and made brief appearances for the Crusaders in the Super Rugby quarterfinals and semifinals.

"I don't think he is going to be good enough, I know he is good enough," coach Steve Hansen said.

Loosehead prop Tony Woodcock will play his 99th test in a hugely-experienced front row, beside hooker Andrew Hore (76 tests) and tighthead Owen Franks (47). Woodcock has also had limited game time this season because of injuries but is backed by Hansen to be fit for test rugby.

The All Blacks won last year's Rugby Championships and have held the Bledisloe Cup — played for in tests against Australia — for more than 10 years. Australia will play their first test on Saturday under new coach Ewen McKenzie.

"With the changing of the guard in the Australian coaching group, it adds a little bit of the unexpected to the challenge," Hansen said.

"Whilst the expectations will be as high as they always are for the All Blacks to perform and win, I have a feeling there will also be huge expectations on the Australians because of the changes, and it will be interesting to see how their players and their new coaching team cope with this."


New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.