For the majority of this century the All Blacks have been the dominating team in world rugby. They have cast a long dark shadow over all their rivals, hoovering up any available silverware. They dismantled the British & Irish Lions in 2005, have claimed 8 out of the last 10 Rugby Championship (formerly Tri Nations) titles available, won the World Cup in 2011, hold the joint longest winning streak in international history (17 games, achieved in 2013/14) and are the only international side to complete a calendar year with a 100% winning record which they did in 2013. While they will roll into England this autumn as firm favourites to retain their World Cup trophy.
However, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, this All Black team will make history by becoming the first ever New Zealand side to compete against one of the Pacific Islands in a full international match on their own soil. The small island of Samoa has long produced fine rugby players that have gone on to represent the All Blacks and have distinguished careers (Rodney So’oialo, Mils Muliaina and the late Jerry Collins to name a few).
The poignancy of this test match hasn’t been lost on the All Blacks as they have named as close a team as possible to what many would consider their best XV. A number of key backs such as Julian Savea, Ma’a Nonu and the Smiths – Conrad, Ben and Arron – are all unavailable having competed in an exhilarating Super Rugby final this past weekend. But the match day squad remains startling strong.
Earlier this month New Zealand coach Steve Hansen named a 41 man squad to prepare for the Rugby Championships, while due to the unavailability of 17 of those players because of the Super Rugby final an additional 9 players have been called up for this test. There is one debutant in the starting 15, that being Blues winger George Moala. While there are a further 3 uncapped tyros on the bench in Samoan born prop Nepo Laulala and the Chiefs pair of scrum half Brad Webber and centre Charlie Ngatai. All three will be anxiously awaiting a chance to make their debuts.
The backline may be missing a few regular components but they will be steered by the greatest out half of his generation, Dan Carter and he will be ably assisted by test regulars Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Dagg. While the forwards need no introduction. Hansen has selected 7 of the 8 players that started the World Cup final 4 years ago, the now retired Brad Thorn the missing link. The pack boasts over 600 caps between and will be lead as ever by flanker Richie McCaw.
Samoa have embraced the challenge of facing the best side in the world by having the Prime Minister declaring Wednesday as a half day so people can watch this historic clash on television. The stadium may only be fit to accommodate 8,000 spectators but you can be sure they will create a noise 5 times that. The exciting Chiefs full back Tim Nanai-Williams will make his debut for the Islanders while their iconic prop Census Johnson has come out of retirement for this fixture such is the meaning it holds.
The Samoan teams contains plenty of names that will be familiar to those in the Northern Hemisphere by virtue of playing Premiership rugby, particularly the Northampton duo Kahn Fotuali’I and Ken Pisi, and former Leicester Tigers winger Alesana Tuilagi.
While Samoa may not be expecting to beat their illustrious visitors they certainly have they capabilities to trouble them. There will be plenty emotion surrounding this fixture, while the Islanders will certainly looking to avenge the 101-14 defeat they suffered when the sides last clashed in 2008. Here are three clashes that could prove to be most intriguing;
Tim Nanai-Williams v Israel Dagg
Chiefs back Nanai-Williams has all the skills in his locker and is a massive threat from full back for the Samoans. The 26 year old is a hugely talented runner and will punish any loose kicks and slow chases. His stats from this season’s Super Rugby are impressive, having beaten 28 defenders and making 19 clean breaks in his 11 outings. He is familiar with the players he’ll be lining up against having been a regular in Super Rugby for the past six season, so he won’t hold any fear. While Samoa may not have played New Zealand in their back yard before, it’s possible Nanai-Williams has. Well one of the All Blacks at least, he is cousins with Kiwi inside centre Sonny Bill-Williams.
Crusaders full back Israel Dagg is one of the most gifted broken field runners currently operating in world rugby. Unfortunately the 27 year old has just endured a deeply frustrating season, featuring only seven times for New Zealand’s most successful franchise. Dagg’s promise had been noted long before he made his breakthrough and he hasn’t disappointed since. His scintillating back field play and silky offloading skills make him a threat from any position on the field. It’s been a good season for full backs in New Zealand, and Dagg will need to take this opportunity to enhance his chances of being first choice when the World Cup comes around.
Kahn Fotuali’l v Andy Ellis
There aren’t too many positions when you look at these two teams that Samoa have the advantage, but this is certainly one. Fotuali’I has long been considered one of the best scrum halves in the Northern Hemisphere, firstly with the Ospreys and subsequently with Northampton Saints. The former Crusaders scrum half has good in game intelligence, a snappy delivery and is a threat around the fringes. One of the problems the Islanders face is they often don’t have calm players in the key decision making positions. With Fotuali’I at 9 you can be sure he’ll nearly always make the right call.
It’s 4 years since Crusaders scrum half Andy Ellis has represented New Zealand, but gets his chance this week due to the unavailability of Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara and injury to Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Ellis has always been a consistent rather than spectacular operator behind the pack, but given the wealth of attacking options available outside him this has never been a massive issue. Having seemingly fallen off the international radar for the past number of years, the 25 times capped 31 year old seems set to travel to the World Cup as third choice scrum half. Barring a complete meltdown in this fixture his position shouldn’t be weakened.
Jack Lam v Richie McCaw
The cousin of Connacht coach Pat, Jack Lam is facing a massive step up in intensity this week. Having played for Bristol in the English Championship for the past 2 seasons, he now goes head to head with the most highly respected openside flanker the game has ever seen. Lam is unquestionably a talented player but the 27 year old seems to have fallen short on his potential. An outstanding prospect when he first broke through at Super Rugby level with the Hurricanes in 2011, his decision to move to Bristol stunted that development somewhat. Lam however possess all the traits required of a great openside, and having started his youth career as a centre he is comfortable with the ball in hand in open spaces.
There are no plaudits left to throw Richie McCaw’s way. The three time World Player of the Year has set and broken all sorts of records during his 137 cap Test career. The end may be closing in on McCaw however, as the 34 year old didn’t seem as unfillable at the breakdown as he has throughout the rest of his storied career. Whether it was his body, or his influence on referees that was waning, he conceded more penalties this season than in any other in recent memory. While the gap to the rest of the truly world class opensides has closed considerably, there is still no doubting McCaw remains top of the pile. By being the first New Zealand test captain to lead his side onto a field in Samoa, McCaw is again creating history. While his ability to dictate the breakdown will see him extend the All Blacks 100% record over their hosts.