The opportunity for the Māori All Blacks to play against top-level opposition has become rare.
In fact outside the British and Irish Lions in 2005 and 2017, this is only the sixth match against a Tier 1 team in the 21st century, winning three and losing three.
After playing a string of Tier 2 teams in the past 22 years, with a singular loss to Fiji in 2019, and even a couple of Tier 3 teams in 2018, they finally get a chance to play Ireland in two games, kicking off tonight in Hamilton.
Such is the strength of Irish rugby, they’ve named a supposed second-string side for the game that can boast more than 500 test caps, and contains no fewer than seven members of the team that beat the All Blacks in Dublin just eight months ago.
Sure, the team might not look like those of the early 2000s that beat Scotland and came within three points of beating Australia but, with Clayton McMillan and the likes of TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, they will be up for the challenge.
Not only do they get the chance to prove once again they can take on the world’s best teams but we will also see the fulfilment of the hard work of tiki Edwards, Mark Seymour and many others who helped establish the Māori pathways programme.
Past and future All Blacks
Two players, fullback Zarn Sullivan and reserve hooker Tyrone Thompson will become the first players to graduate from the first U20 Māori team in 2019 to the full Māori All Blacks side.
From that side in 2019, Cortez Ratima has also gone on to play for the Chiefs, while Thompson’s twin brother Leo has become a regular starter for the Newcastle Knights in the NRL.
As always, the players have a chance to show they can step up to international level rugby, and in some cases, remind the All Blacks management they still have what it takes.
Perenara and Weber have both dropped down the All Black halfback pecking order, behind Folu Fakatava and Finlay Christie. The pair have been handed the co-captaincy of the Māori side, which gives them both the best chance to show Ian Foster and co what they can offer the All Blacks at Rugby World Cup 2023.
Tyrel Lomax, Cullen Grace and Josh Ioane also get to remind Aotearoa why they’ve worn the All-Black jersey previously while rising stars like Zarn Sullivan and his brother Bailyn, Ngāpuhi giant Tamaiti Williams, Kurt Eklund and Ollie Norris are among those who get to test their abilities against a genuine World Cup threat to give Foster a selection headache should any of his selections falter or get injured.
All in all, these two games for the Māori All Blacks will be important in more ways than one, which should add to the exciting style of play Māori rugby brings.