16 Jun 2017

All Blacks not getting ahead of themselves as season kicks off

5:44 am on 16 June 2017

It's a bumper weekend of rugby action in New Zealand with three international test matches taking place around the country as the British and Irish Lions series rolls on.

All Black fullback Ben Smith

All Black fullback Ben Smith Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Lions are in Rotorua where they'll face one of the strongest Maori All Black sides ever assembled tomorrow night.

Tonight though the All Blacks play Samoa in the Pasifika Challenge double header at Auckland's Eden Park right after Tonga play Wales.

The match marks the start of the All Blacks 2017 campaign and to kick it off they'll have a new captain - Highlander fullback Ben Smith is stepping into the role until the regular boss Kieran Read returns from injury.

Aside from Read's omission the All Blacks side is at full strength and there's good reason for it.

It's two years ago since Manu Samoa came within 10 points of upsetting the All Blacks on a hot and humid day in Apia.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen hasn't forgotten it so he's putting his best men out on the paddock.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Naming such a strong side will give the All Blacks a chance to dust off the cobwebs before the British and Irish Lions test series starts next week, but that doesn't mean tonight's game means any less to Hansen.

"Whilst the Lions is a dance that's happening in the background, there's a responsibility to the jersey and those that been before us that we go out and take this test match seriously and respect Samoan rugby for what it is.

"They're a very good rugby team and on their day they can cause and upset so we don't want to be the upset," Hansen said.

For new All Blacks captain Ben Smith, the role isn't entirely new.

Smith's been the stand-in captain in the later stages of All Blacks games before but he said being officially named captain is a dream come true.

"It's pretty exciting, I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's been a good week and I'm just excited about doing that role(captain).

"Leading the team out is going to be a massive honor for myself and my family," Smith said.

For Manu Samoa, this match is as much a warm up for them as it is the All Blacks.

Manu Samoa head coach Namulauulu Alama Ieremia.

Manu Samoa head coach Namulauulu Alama Ieremia. Photo: Renee McKay/SRU

Following on from tonight's game and another against Wales next week, Samoa enter the the Pacific Nations Cup which also doubles as the 2019 Rugby World Cup qualifiers where they'll face fierce rivals Fiji and Tonga.

Manu Samoa coach Alama Ieremia said getting to play the All Blacks as a precurser is like a Christmas wish coming early.

"To play in a double header, it just went from bonus to bonus to bonus. I'm really excited about that, the team's really excited about that.

"It's important that we're quite real about where we are, we've come together very quickly and we're preparing against the best team in the world. Doesn't matter what team they put out, the All Blacks are the All Blacks, there's no weak All Blacks team so we're pretty excited about the challenge.," Ieremia said.

For two families, tonight's match will mark a special occasion, the All Blacks will field three Barrett brothers who will play together for the first time but a set of cousins will also square off against each other.

All Black midfielder Sonny Bill Williams will go up against his cousin - Chiefs outside back Tim Nanai-Williams.

Manu Samoa wing Tim Nanai-Williams

Manu Samoa wing Tim Nanai-Williams Photo: Photosport

They played against each other in Apia two years ago and Nanai-Williams says he is keen to renew the family connections.

"We all know and understand what he brings and we're going to do our best to stop him. I'll be definitely putting my knee to his head a little bit in the ruck (to slow him down). It's going to be awesome going up against him."

Before the All Blacks-Samoa game, Tonga will play Wales in Auckland in the first match of the double header - kickoff in that game is at 5.30 tonight.