What a bumper rugby-fest we have. There's today's verdict about the best Super 15 side in the land then four days later the men in black are charging into historic action against Manu Samoa.

Takes me back almost to the birth of Super Rugby when the All Blacks last played midweek matches on tour.

That was 1997 when the nation's best talent toured England, Ireland and Wales and managed to dovetail five midweek matches around three tests, all played inside a month.

From a boisterous start in Llanelli there was an extraordinary, chilly match in Pontypridd before the squad nipped over to Ireland for the opening test in Dublin.


There were 36 players on that trip with Todd Miller, Jeremy Stanley, Mark Robinson (halfback), Todd Blackadder, Aaron Hopa, Steve Surridge, Con Barrell and Gordon Slater taken as uncapped selections.

None played a test on tour but they all gained enormous experience from playing and being around an array of talented colleagues while Justin Marshall captained the test side when Sean Fitzpatrick's knee injury worsened.

None of tonight's Super Rugby rivals will pitch up in Samoa for Wednesday's test when several newcomers to the All Blacks will get a feel for how the side operates.

A few may squeeze into the 23-man squad for test day at Apia Park while others will get a tantalising look at life and test preparations inside that elite rugby group.

Who knows what will happen, a mishap or a punt from the selectors and one of the outriders may become a fixture inside the group.

From this vantage point, it's a shame crowd numbers will be restricted to 8000 for what will be a remarkable piece of rugby history. That decision felt like it was an over-zealous reaction but these days you have to defer to authorities.

Apia Park has a 12,000 capacity and if the price was right, that and more could have crammed into the sports stadium.

However, concern about crowd safety, the price of tickets and space needed for corporate boxes, has cut that figure by a third.

This is a big deal for New Zealand and Samoa rugby.

This venture will be judged in many ways with both nations wondering whether their rugby futures will mingle further or diverge as the pressures of professional rugby rise.

Next year is the start of another expanded Super Rugby deal which has not yet raised much enthusiasm and a further five years without any Pacific Island team.