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Maori All Blacks step into a new era

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Lynn McConnell     09 Jul 2015     Getty Images

Coach Colin Cooper has been getting a regular diet of match play in recent years and the prospect is that there will be plenty for the new generation of Maori All Blacks to play for in years to come.

There is every reason to hope for a match against the British and Irish Lions, whose schedule in 2017 is to be announced on Friday, especially after the impact their 2005 match had on that tour.

But the immediate task for Cooper and his side is maintaining the winning streak the Maori All Blacks have had against Fiji. The last time Fiji beat them was in 1957 at Carisbrook in Dunedin.

Cooper said from Suva that he was confident the mixture of youth and experience assembled for the game would make the task a difficult one for what is an experienced Fijian team.

Only one of the home squad, forward reserve Peni Ravai, is a local player, the rest ply their trade in professional squads on both sides of the equator. But they are an experienced combination under the leadership of Akapusi Qera, who is at No.8. He played 142 games for Gloucester before moving to Toulouse and, most recently, Montpellier in France.

Nemani Nadolo has been one of the stars in the Crusaders said this year while Malakai Ravulo is known to the New Zealanders for his play with North Harbour while hooker Talamaitgo Tuapati plays for Southland, and has 26 Tests to his credit.

First five-eighths Josh Matavesi has played eight Tests since 2009 and has experience with Racing Metro, Worcester and Ospreys. The bench five-eighths Ben Volavola was in the Waratahs squad and has signed with the Crusaders for next season.

Cooper could have bolstered his side with members of the Highlanders and Hurricanes teams, but they will start from the bench as it was important to manage the players' workloads, he said.

Highlanders props Brendon Edmonds and Josh Hohneck and loose forward Elliot Dixon and Hurricanes first five-eighths Otere Black are all on the bench.

New All Black and Maoris captain Charlie Ngatai, who made his debut in the latter stages of the Apia Test on Wednesday, rejoined the side on Thursday and while missing the side's main training run was already familiar with the side's set-up as a result of last year's tour to Asia.

Two sets of brothers, Marty and Damian McKenzie and Akira and Rieko Ioane will feature in the side. The most recent example of two sets of brothers appearing in a New Zealand side occurred in 1994 when Graeme and Stephen Bachop and Zinzan and Robin Brooke played for the All Blacks against France.

Damian McKenzie will play at fullback with Marty at first five-eighths while Akira Ioane would be at blindside flanker and Rieko would be on the wing.

Cooper said Akira had impressed in a disappointing Blues side when he got the chance, had carried the ball well and defended well and both he and Rieko had a good opportunity in the game to prove themselves at international level.

Halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow was continuing his return from severe injury and as a result of his All Blacks experience had brought some self-belief to the side.

Cooper was expecting the Maoris set piece to perform well and while the players were physically ready for the contest after most of them had been involved in Super Rugby, a lot would come down to their attitude in the game and the way they dealt with the heat and the home crowd.

The All Blacks had shown what could be expected from the home team when they met Samoa and the Maori All Blacks had to be prepared for something similar.

"It is very important that we manage to play as well as we can. We are a high performance team and we are a platform to higher honours," Cooper said.