The All Blacks’ coaching staff will use Thursday’s game against Samoa as a full dress rehearsal for the majority of their frontline team in readiness for the first test against the Lions at Eden Park eight days later.
The exceptions are the injured duo of captain and number eight Kieran Read, and centre Ryan Crotty, whom the management hope will be fit next week. Read has been sidelined with a fractured thumb which is close to mending, while Crotty has a rib cartilage injury.
In Read's absence, another key member of the All Blacks' World Cup winning side, Hurricanes fullback Ben Smith will captain the side.
In the absence of Crotty, and not surprisingly after his match-winning performance for the Blues against the Lions, Sonny Bill Williams has been recalled for his first test since the World Cup final win over Australia, when his trademark offload led to Ma’a Nonu’s match-clinching try.
Williams will be partnered by Anton Lienert-Brown while Smith will be flanked by Julien Savea, whose 45 Test tries puts him within four of Doug Howlett’s record of 49 tries, and Israel Dagg.
Aaron Smith has fended off the challenge of TJ Perenara to partner World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett in the established halfback combination, and on the occasion of his 50th cap, the latter could be joined by his brothers Scott and Jordie in what would be a unique achievement by three brothers in an All Blacks test.
The latter, who plays alongside his brother at both centre and full-back, is in line for his debut along with another Hurricanes’ teammate, Tongan-born lock cum blindside flanker Vaea Fifita.
In Read’s absence Ardie Savea will start at number eight, a position which he has played a number of times this year for the Hurricanes, but never before in a test.
The options for Steve Hansen and co were restricted here as Liam Squire is still recovering from a broken thumb, while the coaches have chosen to keep Jerome Kaino at blindside, an indicator perhaps that Read will return next week.
As expected, the Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor starts in the absence of the brilliant Dane Coles, who has been sidelined for several months with concussion issues, in an otherwise first choice tight five.
Hansen said: “Whilst we asked for this game to help us prepare for the DHL New Zealand Lions Series, once it became a reality, it then took on its own importance - this is a Test match against a quality and very capable opponent. Samoa is about to kick off the qualifying stage of their Rugby World Cup campaign, so this will make them even more dangerous. The Samoans are always a challenge and will play with a high level of physicality and skill. At the very minimum, we will need to match that.”
“This first week has been about bringing together the players from the five different Super clubs and reintroducing them to the All Blacks way. We’ve had a good week and are really looking forward to this match.”
“It’s going to be a unique night with two Tests being played at the same venue featuring four teams that are well known to New Zealand fans. It’s a night that shouldn’t be missed, as I’m picking there will be a lot of great rugby played so get on down there and show your support.”
NEW ZEALAND: Ben Smith (capt); Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock; Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Vaea Fifita, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Jordie Barrett.