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New frontiers for Maori All Blacks

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Campbell Burnes     17 Oct 2018     Getty Images

After the November 3 tripleheader Chicago international against the USA Eagles, ranked No 15 in the world, the Maori will travel to South America for games against Brazil (ranked 26) and Chile (30).

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“You always prepare expecting them to be at their best, because they are playing the Maori All Blacks. There is a bit of anxiety about not knowing too much about them,” says McMillan.

“I’m not one to count my chickens before they hatch, so all I’ll say is that it’s great to be able to go to those parts of the world to help grow their rugby, and the best way we can do that is to put on a performance we can be proud of, first and foremost.”

Brazil won its first South American Championship in 2018, and placed fifth, beating Chile, in the Americas Rugby Championship.

“It’s great that we can take the Maori All Blacks to new territories. On the back of a long Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup seasons, I’m sure the players are looking forward to exploring new territory,” adds McMillan.

The hard part for the Maori All Blacks coaching staff, which includes Roger Randle and Joe Maddock, is always selection, working out who is available and who is being released from the All Blacks.

A total of 28 players will travel to Chicago on October 28, with the bulk of the squad assembling in Bay of Plenty next week as they are released from their provincial Mitre 10 Cup duties. Thus far only nine players are fully free of playing commitments as semifinals weekend looms. Canterbury wing Caleb Makene will travel to Chicago as outside back cover before returning home after that match.

Potentially five named in the All Blacks for the November 3 Test match against Japan will join the squad in South America. They are halfback Bryn Hall, centre Matt Proctor, outside back Nehe Milner-Skudder, lock Jackson Hemopo and prop Tyrel Lomax.

Brad Weber and Akira Ioane are others to have worn the All Blacks jersey.

“We didn’t anticipate Akira being with us, but he will be a significant boost for our team. We’re well aware of his strengths and will welcome him with open arms,” says McMillan.

Despite losing a clutch of players to the All Blacks, the Maori All Blacks have depth, talent and Mitre 10 form. There are potentially nine debutants in Auckland hooker Robbie Abel, Tasman lock Pari Pari Parkinson, Wellington lock Isaia Walker-Leawere, Canterbury flanker Billy Harmon, and Bay of Plenty loosies Mitch Karpik and Hoani Matenga, Otago No 10 Josh Ioane, Waikato utility back Matty Lansdown and Hawke’s Bay wing Jonah Lowe.
Maori depth at halfback has arguably never been stronger, with Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Bryn Hall all named in the All Blacks, while Hall, Jonathan Ruru and Weber were all named in the Maori All Blacks. In all, 16 of the squad of 28 appeared in 2017 for the Maori.

The skipper is again Hawke’s Bay rake Ash Dixon, though he is returning from injury and will not play for the Magpies in Saturday’s Mitre 10 Cup Championship semifinal against Otago.

“His injury is such that it’s just about taking time. He’s such a valuable member of our squad that we’re prepared to take him on the basis that he may only get a short amount of rugby leading into the tour,” says McMillan.

Lock Parkinson, 22, has had plenty of rugby for the Mako, proving himself as one of the leading lineout exponents in the Mitre 10 Cup.

“Pari Pari has always been on the national radar. He’s a big lump of a lad who has taken a while to grow into that body. We’ve been impressed with the way he’s conducted himself with Tasman. He deserves his opportunity on merit,” says McMillan.

McMillan himself is excited about the chance to catch up with his old Bay of Plenty coach Joe Schmidt, now with Ireland, of course, who will face Italy as part of the Chicago triple-header with the Maori and the Black Ferns. McMillan does not envisage any challenges about getting his men excited about what lies ahead.

“We just keep things simple from a preparation point of view and make sure people coming into the fold quickly get into the mindset about playing international teams. I don’t anticipate we’ll need to do too much more than just get our own preparation right.”