All Blacks eye Samoa 'battle' to fine-tune for Lions
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The All Blacks are expecting a tough battle against Samoa on Friday, as they fine-tune their game ahead of the three-Test series against British and Irish Lions.
"Everyone is talking about the big battle around the corner but our mentality is the best way to prepare for a battle is to have a battle," assistant coach Ian Foster said ahead of the clash in Auckland.
New Zealand see the Pacific islanders as a chance to perfect what they learned from watching the Lions in their tour matches, which include a victory against Super Rugby's unbeaten Crusaders and defeats to the Blues and Highlanders.
"It's about putting some detail in our team, making sure we know what we're trying to do," said Foster.
While the All Blacks have the goal of being ready for the first Lions Test on June 24, Samoa have crucial World Cup qualifiers coming up against Fiji and Tonga "so rest assured, this will be a full-on battle. That's the best way to prepare for anything," Foster added.
In particular the All Blacks will be hoping Samoa can emulate the Lions style of play with high, contestable kicks, a powerful front row to sort out scrum issues, and hard running centres.
The match is being played on a Friday, a rarity for an international, to avoid a clash with the B&I Lions' match against the New Zealand Maori in Rotorua on Saturday.
It will not be a full shakedown for the All Blacks, who are to name their line-up on Thursday with seven of the 33-man squad unlikely to be available.
Captain Kieran Read has already ruled himself out to ensure he is fully recovered from a broken thumb and ready to face the Lions eight days later.
Hooker Dane Coles continues to be troubled with concussion symptoms while fly-half Aaron Cruden, centre Ryan Crotty and loose forward Liam Squire have knee, rib and thumb injuries.
Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo were released to play for the Highlanders in their narrow 23-22 win over the Lions on Tuesday and it is doubtful they would be asked to perform again three days later.
With the exception of Coles, all of the injured are expected to be available for the first Lions Test.
Samoa also have injury concerns with captain David Lemi and Cardiff Blues midfielder Reynold Lee-lo unavailable.
"Obviously losing the experience that both these players bring is crucial and David's leadership will be missed," coach Alama Ieremia said.
Samoa have one debutant i the starting line-up in former Canterbury Crusaders and now Ospreys centre Kieron Fonotia. Potential debuts could come off the bench in the shape of Nevers and former Auckland scrumhalf Auvasa Falealii and Stade Francais prop Paul Alo Emile.
"Obviously we want to put out an experienced team and the All Blacks is not a team you experiment with, so we are wanting to put on a performance that will make our nation and most importantly ourselves proud," Ieremia said.
"This will give us an indication of where we are at because it is important to build momentum going in to June-July internationals."
Samoa have never beaten New Zealand in six attempts, with the closest margin coming two years ago when the All Blacks were 25-16 winners of a World Cup warm-up match.