The talking finally stops on Saturday when New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions collide in a mouth-watering first Test in Auckland.
Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland have wound each other up at times on this tour, adding to the tension and excitement ahead of the weekend. It’s incredible though how the momentum in terms of All Black backing seems to have slowed even in the past week as, make no mistake, the Lions have shown they can be a serious contender in the coming three games.
When New Zealand brushed aside Samoa last Friday all the talk was of a 3-0 series sweep. Then followed another solid showing from the Lions on the Saturday, against the Maori All Blacks, and again on Tuesday when the midweek outfit also shone, albeit against a depleted Chiefs.
Perhaps the Maori game was a better gauge to judge where the Lions are at and despite that host team not having lots of time to click, the way the Lions closed down Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, James Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Akira Ioane and more was a sign they’re on the right track. Now doing the same against the likes of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read is the big challenge awaiting them.
Defensively they appear supremely confident at the moment but the team selection from head coach Gatland shows they want to play too, with Liam Williams preferred over Leigh Halfpenny while Elliot Daly is rewarded for his form with a start ahead of George North in the 11 shirt.
Surprise too came from the All Blacks as they went for Ioane in place of Julian Savea while Anton Lienert-Brown is nudged out by the returning Ryan Crotty. TJ Perenara continuing to miss out on the XV does perplex though as he’s been the best nine in world rugby in 2017.
While it’s an exciting line-up from Gatland, don’t expect the Lions to throw the ball around on Saturday, especially with the forecast in Auckland predicting rain over the next two days. If that’s the case one has to feel that would suit the Lions and their strong tight game that is built on Conor Murray’s tactical kicking.
The benches too will also have a major role to play as impact is primed for both teams, in particular Maro Itoje for the Lions, which all adds to a fascinating prospect at Eden Park as two contrasting styles clash. What wins through will take a massive step towards series glory.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: The return of Kieran Read is a significant boost, of that there’s no doubt. It also offers New Zealand an excellent bench option as Ardie Savea waits on the edge of his seat. Read hitting the ground running is a big ask after such a long time out, but he is a special player and it wouldn’t surprise if he shone. Also keep an eye on the world’s best player right now, fly-half Beauden Barrett, as he looks to continue his excellent try-scoring form. Barrett knows he will have a target on his back but will the Lions will able to halt him?
For British and Irish Lions: New Zealand struggled to contain Liam Williams last year and the Lions will hope history repeats itself this series. Part of the plan all along, maybe, Gatland has gone with Williams’ attacking threat over the reliable goal-kicking option of Leigh Halfpenny, which puts added pressure on Owen Farrell, who has uncharacteristically missed a couple of efforts on this tour. The Lions need their fly-half faultless in all aspects but such is the quality of Farrell in terms of ability and mental toughness he should be reliable.
Head-to-head: We go to the midfield here where Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Te’o clash. Two former rugby league stars, both have flourished in union since making the cross-code move. Sparks are sure to fly between two physical specimens and outside them too as Ryan Crotty comes in for Anton Lienert-Brown and faces off with Jonathan Davies. We’re also excited to see Rieko Ioane and Anthony Watson show their talents.
2005: New Zealand won 38-19 in Auckland
2005: New Zealand won 48-18 in Wellington
2005: New Zealand won 21-3 in Christchurch
1993: New Zealand won 30-13 in Auckland
1993: British and Irish Lions won 20-7 in Wellington
1993: New Zealand won 20-18 in Christchurch
Prediction: The All Blacks should have too much quality over the course of the match and will come out on top. New Zealand by 10 points.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
British and Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 George Kruis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Jonathan Sexton, 23 Leigh Halfpenny
Date: Saturday, June 24
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Jérôme Garcès (France)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
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