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All the goodwill in the Samoan capital this week has been tempered by the noise coming out of France over the selection of
prop Census Johnston.
Toulouse, as French clubs often do, don’t like their players to just turn up for internationals without permission.
The 34-year-old Johnston, who has played 47 Tests for Samoa since 2005, had announced his international retirement in April.
However, he has been training with the Samoa squad in recent weeks and will feature in the match in Apia – the first appearance in Samoa by the All Blacks, who have won all five previous Tests between the two countries played in New Zealand.
But Toulouse’s newly-installed Director of Sport Fabien Pelous was not happy with Johnson’s selection.
“The club’s position is quite clear,” he said. “We thought up until a few days ago that Census had retired from international rugby.
“So the fact that he’s playing this match, that surprised us a little, that has unsettled us to be honest.”
Pelous also wondered whether Johnston might be tempted to play at the September 18 to October 31 World Cup, where Samoa have been drawn in Pool B alongside South Africa, Japan, Scotland and the United States.
“We’ll see if it’s only this match or if there’s a view to him playing the World Cup and we’ll decide what to do when we know what he has decided,” said the former France lock, ruling out any sanctions.
“What’s important for us is to prepare internally for the first four games [of the Top 14 season] should he by chance play the World Cup.”
Apart from that little outburst it has been goodwill everywhere in Apia.
That will change dramatically at kick-off time, 15.00, in Apia on Wednesday.
The visitors are well aware they will have their hands full in the searing heat against a settled Samoan team who have focused on nothing else for the last two weeks.
New Zealand are notorious for slow starts to a season, something that could be problematic if they give the history-chasing Samoans a sniff.
Test observers are struggling to remember the last time the All Blacks played in the uncomfortable conditions promised for Wednesday’s Test.
Temperatures are forecast to top 30°C for the mid-afternoon Test at Apia Park, which will come as no surprise to anyone given the dripping heat of the last week.
Even more concerning is that showers are forecast for the morning, which will only add to the draining humidity.
Members of All Blacks management reckoned some of the Tests on the South African high veldt may have gone close to 30°C in recent years, but with nothing like the mugginess of Apia.
The players will pay extra attention to hydration before, during and after the Test. Considerable loss of weight is possible if they don’t prepare well, a scenario to be avoided nine days before a Test against Argentina in Christchurch.
It’s not just the All Blacks who are wary of the furnace that awaits.
Most of the Samoan team are coming off cold European club seasons, including lock Kane Thompson.
He believes their earlier preparation could hold them in good stead against the visitors, who will play less about 40 hours after flying out of wintry New Zealand.
“It’s always tough for me coming back here and playing, but we’ve acclimatised now,” he said.
“I’ve been here for two weeks so we’re hoping it’s going to give us a little bit of an edge, although we know their fitness levels in New Zealand are exceptionally high.”
Players to watch:
For Samoa: You start at fullback, where Tim Nanai Williams has given up on his All Black dream and now playing for his native country. Paul Perez has been under the radar at the Sharks in Durban and it would be interesting to see if he is still up to international standards. Alesana Tuilagi, even at 34, could still do some serious damage. Ofisa Treviranus, not just as a player but also as captain, will play a vital role in keeping his teammates emotions in check.
For New Zealand: Israel Dagg would be keen to use this opportunity to prove he is still a threat to Ben Smith as the All Blacks’ starting No.15. George Moala is another who relish the opportunity, given it is his debut. Sonny Bill Williams has not been at his best this year – not bad, just a tad below where we’ve seen him in the past. Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino bring with them all the experience the All Blacks will need in the pressure cooker that will be the Apia stadium.
Head to head: How Johnny Leota (Samoa) goes against Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand) is going to be a show on its own. While the forwards are often where games are won or lost, the key to this encounter may well be found in the halfback positions – where Tusi Pisi and Kahn Fotuali’i (Samoa) will face off against two other veterans in Dan Carter and Andy Ellis (New Zealand). Can Kane Thompson (Samoa) stand up to Samuel Whitelock (New Zealand) in the second row? The there is the scrum battle – Census Johnston, Wayne ole Avei and Sakaria Taulafo (Samoa) against Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock (New Zealand).
2008: New Zealand won 101-14, New Plymouth
2001: New Zealand won 50-6, Albany
1999: New Zealand won 71-13, Albany
1996: New Zealand won 51-10, Napier
1993: New Zealand won 35-13, Auckland
Prediction: There will be passion, plenty of it, and Samoa will give the New Zealanders a good working over – especially in the first half. However, the class in the All Black team is likely to see them ease clear in the final quarter and win by at least 20 points.
Samoa: 15 Tim Nanai Williams, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Paul Perez, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Tusi Pisi, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Ofisa Treviranus (captain), 7 Jack Lam, 6 Alafoti Fa’osiliva, 5 Kane Thompson, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Wayne ole Avei, 1 Sakaria Taulafo.
Replacements: 16 Ma’atulimanu Leiataua, 17 Viliamu Afatia, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Iosefa Tekori, 20 Maurie Fa’asavalu, 21 Pele Cowley, 22 Faialaga Afamasaga, 23 Ken Pisi.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 George Moala, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Charlie Ngatai.
Date: Wednesday, July 8
Venue: Apia Park, Apia
Kick-off: 15.00 (14.00 NZ time, 02.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly cloudy, hot and humid. High of 33°C and a low of 25°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia