NZ Maori vs British & Irish Lions Preview
Last updated: June 16, 2017 by Leon Marshal
|Kick-off:||Saturday, 08:35 (GMT)|
|Venue:||Rotorua Intl. Stadium|
|Coverage:||Sky Sports, Sky Sports HD|
|Fixture type:||Warm up fixture|
|Home team odds||7/4|
|Away team odds:||8/15|
One step forward and one step back has been the story of the tour so far as the Lions suffered another telling setback earlier this week in a frantic-paced game against the Highlanders in Dunedin. At this crucial juncture where time is slowly, but surely, escaping Gatland and his coaching team as they try establish the test 23, the loss would have done more to puncture the team’s confidence rather than completely derail their campaign. Nevertheless, the lack of discipline in the second half that saw the Lions squander a nine-point lead – not to mention a floundering set-piece in the later stages that will be a tough pill to swallow for Graham Rowntree and Steve Borthwick – will give Gatland cause for concern. With a star-studded Maori side in Rotorua the next challenge in waiting and the first test just over one week away, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s do or die time for the Lions.
Alarm bells won’t quite be ringing in the Lions camp just yet, but there is no denying that the dramatic loss to a depleted Highlanders side would have hurt them. There were clear signs of progress three days earlier when a well-drilled blitz defence managed to nullify the attacking threat of a Crusaders side in formidable form, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the inevitable late surge that has almost come to define New Zealand rugby from the national team right down to provincial sides proved too much for the midweek Lions. The withdrawal of talisman Owen Farrell earlier this week due to a thigh strain will also give Gatland plenty to ponder; Jonathan Sexton will have to step up and prove that he can take over the reins should Farrell fail to recover in time for next week, as will Ben Teó, who will have to produce a more balanced performance and prove that he has the temperament to control a game at second five-eighth.
The Lion’s selection for tomorrow’s fixture speaks volumes of the need to re-establish some authority; Vunipola, Kruis, O’Brien and Faletau combining in the pack alongside Murray, North and Davies in the backline suggests that this isn’t too far off Gatland’s test side. It’s a good thing, too, as the deadly attacking threat posed by the Maori in the likes of Rieko Ioane, James Lowe, Nehe-Milner Skudder and the mercurial Damien McKenzie who – with the exception of Ioane – can all consider themselves unlucky to have missed out on an All Blacks call-up, will force the Lions to implement an immaculate kicking game and work on disrupting the speed of the ball at the breakdown. If the Lions can impose a structured, set-piece orientated game on the Maori then they should come away with a victory. If they do not, and the game breaks up and they give their opponents too much space and time in attack, there’s every chance that they’ll come unstuck – symptomatic, you would think, of the mighty challenge facing the tourists across in the three full tests.
Rieko Ioane has another chance to prove he’s ready for test match rugby as he lines up alongside James Lowe, Charlie Ngatai, Damien McKenzie and Nehe Milner-Skudder in an immensely talented backline.
2015 Rugby World Cup star, Nehe Milner-Skudder, failed to make Steve Hansen’s test side due to lack of game time this season following repeat injuries. Although it may be too late for him to stake a claim for the full test side, he’ll no doubt be out to impress.
Owen Farrell has been side-lined for tomorrow’s fixture due to a thigh strain. With these kind of injuries normally taking between 7-10 days to heal fully he is in a race against time to make the first test next week at Eden Park.
Courtney Lawes, who has been one of the more consistent performers on this year’s tour, will remain out of the match day squad after suffering a concussion in the midweek game agasint the Highlanders. It is also unclear whether or not he’ll be available for the first test.
|NZ Maori:||Hames, Dixon, May, Wheeler, Franklin, Ioane, Dixon, Messam, Kerr-Barlow, McKenzie, Ioane, Ngatai, Proctor, Milner-Skudder, Lowe|
|Subs:||Elliot, Eves, Renata, Price, Pryor, Hall, West, Thompson|
|British & Irish Lions:||Vunipola, George, Furlong, Kruis, Itoje, O.Mahony, O’Brien, Faletau, Murray, Sexton, North, Te’o, Davies, Watson, Halfpenny|
|Subs:||Owens, McGrath, Sinckler, Henderson, Warbuton, Laidlaw, Biggar, Daly|
Crunch Time for Gatland’s Lions
No matter which way you choose to look at it, tomorrow is a pivotal moment for the Lions. Much of the talk up to now has been about performance rather than results, but another loss at the hands of a side some way below the strength of a fully fit and fighting All Blacks squad would be a huge blow to the tourists. Gatland also has the important task of making sure his players remain as one – especially now that those who will make up main test team and those that will play the midweek fixtures has become more apparent – and the common vision of winning the series remains the overriding goal of the squad and not individual gripes. Another loss at this stage, you feel, would be truly detrimental to the Lion’s hopes of winning the series. Now, more than ever, it is time for the Lions to stand up and prove their worth.
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