Lions likely to take interest in All Blacks-Samoa test
New Zealand's Pacific Challenge rugby test with Samoa on Friday will be important viewing for the British and Irish Lions eight days out from their series-opening test.
While the Lions have seen individual All Blacks in action for Super Rugby teams on tour, Friday's match in Auckland will give the tourists the first glimpse of a full All Blacks team and a better sense of the challenge awaiting them in the three-test series.
At the same time, the All Blacks have had a chance to assess the British and Irish squad in four tour matches and will gain more detailed knowledge of their opponents when the Lions field a near test-strength lineup against New Zealand Maori on Saturday.
New Zealand has selected a strong lineup to face Samoa, and Lions coach Warren Gatland believes it provides insight into their selection thinking and the style they will adopt.
"It looks like their strongest side,' Gatland said.
"They're trying to get a game under their belts. I'm not sure they'll make many changes from that game against Samoa to the following weeks."
The All Blacks and Lions have something in common in their matches as both will start under new captains. New Zealand captain Kieran Read will miss the Samoa match as he continues his recovery from a broken thumb and fullback Ben Smith will lead the team for the first time.
The Lions have named tour captain Sam Warburton on the bench for the match against the Maori, elevating Ireland flanker Peter O'Mahony to the captaincy. In doing so they have provided the strongest indication yet that Warburton, recovering from an ankle injury, may not be fit for the first test.
The All Blacks and Lions also have in common a strong sense of respect for their opponents this weekend. The Lions lost to the Maori when the teams last met in 2005. The All Blacks were lucky to beat Samoa 25-16 in their most-recent meeting in Samoa in 2015.
Coach Steve Hansen said the All Blacks were focusing closely on the Samoans.
"Whilst we asked for this game to help us prepare for the Lions series, once it became a reality it then took on its own importance," he said. "Samoa is about to kick off the qualifying stage of their Rugby World Cup campaign so this will make them even more dangerous."
All Blacks selectors will look closely at the form of scrumhalf Aaron Smith, under pressure from T.J. Perenara, and center Sonny Bill Williams, who could start against the Lions if Ryan Crotty is unfit. Hooker Codie Taylor is in line to start ahead of Dane Coles, who is concussed and will need to reassure the selectors that he is fit.
Samoa will use the match as a springboard into midyear tests, which include World Cup qualifying games during the Pacific Nations Cup.
"The boys know they are playing the best team in the world and they know if they don't get it right it's going to be a long day," Samoa coach and former All Black Alama Ieremia said. "We have to be smart."
Friday's Pacific Challenge is a rarity which will see two tests played at the same venue on the same day. Before the All Blacks play Samoa, Wales will play Tonga at Eden Park.
Wales will be without regular starters who are touring with the Lions and will use Friday's match to give a new generation of talent some test experience. Tonga welcomes a rare opportunity to play a top tier nation.
Veteran center Jamie Roberts will lead Wales for the first time and said they will have to be at their physical best to hold out Tonga's challenge.
"When you play against the Pacific island teams, if you don't match these guys physically you're in for a long day," Roberts said. "You have to take the game to them.
"They've got threats across the park and certainly they're pretty special athletes."