WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) For New Zealand and Samoa, the long journey to this year’s Rugby World Cup in England and Wales starts Wednesday with a one-off rugby test thousands of miles away – at palm-fringed Apia Park in the Samoan capital.
The All Blacks are making history by playing their first-ever test in the Pacific islands, but the squad has a more important goal in mind – the defense of its 2011 World Cup title. Wednesday’s test will be the first of five matches New Zealand plays before its opening match against Argentina at Twickenham on Sept. 21.
For Samoa, the test is of much greater magnitude – it’s not just the first step toward the team’s own World Cup opener against the United States on Sept. 20, but the biggest sporting event for the nation since it achieved independence from New Zealand in 1962.
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Only 8,000 tickets have been made available to spectators at Apia Park – many at prices well beyond the reach of average Samoans – but Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi has declared a half-day holiday to allow others to leave work and school to watch the match on television at home.
Samoa has long wanted to host a match against the All Blacks, but New Zealand Rugby has resisted for commercial, logistical and scheduling reasons. Pressure steadily grew on the All Blacks last year, with a television campaign and the prime ministers of both New Zealand and Samoa calling for a Pacific test to be played.
After New Zealand finally found a gap in its schedule this month, Samoa then had to allay concerns over the quality of the playing surface in Apia, spending $30 million to prepare the stadium and re-turf the field to ensure it’s at least as good as it was when Samoa played Scotland in 2012.
Now, with the match set to begin, Samoa is in a festive mood. Islanders have decorated houses and public buildings in the colors of the teams and erected statues of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and his Samoa counterpart Ofisa Treviranus. Some coconuts have even been painted to resemble rugby balls.
When the All Blacks arrived in Apia late Monday, hundreds of people were waiting for them at the airport and many others lined the roads between the airport and city.
All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino, who was born in neighboring American Samoa, said he understood the emotions of locals who have waited so long to see this match take place.
”It means a lot to the people and the country and it means a lot to us,” he said. ”We’ve got a lot of Samoan boys in the team and (playing a test in Samoa) was always a dream when I made the All Blacks.”
New Zealand is favored to win the match, having never lost to Samoa in five previous tests. Their most recent match in 2008 was a blowout – the All Blacks prevailed 101-14.
But All Blacks coach Steve Hansen expects Samoa to be a much more formidable team at home, which is the reason he’s brought as strong a team as possible to Apia, given recent injuries and the unavailability of 17 players who took part in last weekend’s Super Rugby final.
”You’ve got a whole nation who are going to be lining the streets and from what I’ve read already, the place is going off and that emotion can really lift a player,” he said. ”And when you are a talented player, like they are, we are going to have talented opposition.”
”We’re going to have to play really well because it’s going to be an emotional occasion. If we allow them to score too many points the crowd will go nuts.”
Samoa has also named a strong team, made up primarily of players based in New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, England and France.
”The All Blacks are coming at full strength and I think that’s the respect they’ve given us,” Samoa coach Stephen Betham said. ”We need to gauge ourselves before the World Cup and we want to gauge ourselves against the best.”