All Blacks eye Samoa in Lions warm-up

A Pacific Island rugby double header is likely for June, with the All Blacks close to securing a test with Samoa and packaging it alongside Tonga's clash with Wales.

A deal hasn't yet been agreed but the Weekend Herald understands there is growing confidence among all parties that on Friday, June 16, the All Blacks will play Samoa in Auckland - with Tonga versus Wales as the curtain raiser.

The All Blacks are keen to play a meaningful contest before the first test against the Lions on June 24. They are conscious the Lions will have had six tough tour games before that first test, while the All Blacks will have had two weeks of training, but no opportunity to play.

History shows that the All Blacks are often vulnerable in the first test of the season - beset by inevitable rustiness and lack of cohesion.

In 2014, they were lucky to beat England in their first test of the year, as they were in 2013, when one bounce of the ball probably denied France a victory.

Given the prominence of the Lions series and the All Blacks' desire to win it, they are not prepared to go into that first test undercooked. Head coach Steve Hansen says they need a game under their belts to sharpen their instincts and work through their combinations and game plan.

In 2005, the last time the Lions were here, the All Blacks played Fiji at North Harbour Stadium and while they ran up a cricket score against limited opposition, it was nonetheless highly beneficial to have that contest.

So for the past month or so, New Zealand Rugby has been looking for a suitable opponent and is now settling on Samoa.

Samoa are understood to be keen to play, as they will already be in camp ahead of their June test programme. Their best players will be available and the opportunity to take on the All Blacks is never one any country wants to turn down.

The only significant unknown at this stage is the venue. Eden Park is not likely to be used, as it is already scheduled to host three Lions games - two tests and their match against the Blues.

North Harbour Stadium is thought to be the most likely venue, although originally, when Tonga were told by World Rugby some weeks ago that their ground in Nuku'alofa wasn't test standard and they needed to shift the match against Wales to Auckland, Mt Smart and Pukekohe were being considered.

With the All Blacks now potentially part of the programme, it's difficult to see Pukekohe being given the green light, and the greater size, and therefore income potential, of North Harbour, where the All Blacks have previously played, possibly makes it the favourite.

Because a venue has not yet been confirmed and the financial arrangements are yet to be worked, through, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew could only tell the Weekend Herald: "The All Blacks have indicated they would like a hit-out before the DHL NZ Lions Series, and we're looking at a number of options, but nothing is off the table or confirmed as yet."


Photo / Mark Mitchell (New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew).