New Zealand Maori are close to securing a three-match tour of Asia in November and also seem likely to play the British & Irish Lions in 2017.
Details are yet to be finalised, but Fairfax Media understands the Maori will play two matches against Japan and one in Singapore against a yet-to-be-determined opponent - at the new National Stadium, which seats 55,000 and hosts the World Club 10s tournament involving the Blues and Brumbies this month.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew was reluctant to talk specifics, but confirmed the tour would take place in early November. The final opponent is expected to be confirmed within weeks.
"They are an important part of our history and what makes rugby in this country different from anywhere else in the world," Tew said of the Colin Cooper-led Maori team. "We're always keen to have an appropriate programme. Realistically, that can't be every year but it is most years. The opportunity to back up what the All Blacks did in Tokyo last year has got some merit."
Asia is an increasing drawcard for the NZRU. It allows commercial alignment with global insurance sponsor AIG, while also being seen to support Super Rugby's expansion, with the 18th team likely to be based out of Asia. Singapore is the favourite destination.
"We're in the process of short listing for that," Tew said of the 18th team. "It would be quite a long assumption and it's certainly not our desire to pre-empt that decision by taking the Maori there. Clearly we are trying to grow the game in that part of the world, though."
Three games represent an increase in fixtures for the Maori. Last year, they were undefeated in two matches in Canada and the United States, having previously been dominant in the Pacific Nations Cup.
"We actually find it quite challenging finding opposition for the New Zealand Maori side," Tew said. "They've almost been too successful."
In an ideal world most punters would like to see the Maori regularly challenging premier nations. Since 2003, the Maori have won 17 successive games. That stretch includes memorable victories over England and Ireland in 2010 - and an historic first win over the Lions in 2005 under Matt Te Pou. The Maori have played Japan once previously in 2008, winning 65-22 in Napier.
"I'm not sure we would say playing tier-one nations would be the ultimate," Tew disagreed. "At the end of the day we've got an All Blacks side that plays tests.
"There are a number of demands on us to play a number of teams around the world. We see the Maori as an additional team in armoury.
"We'll certainly have them on the list of possibilities when the Lions are here in 2017. That will require the agreement of the Lions but it's certainly one of our desires."
- Sunday Star Times
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