New Zealand vs British & Irish Lions Test I Preview
Last updated: June 22, 2017 by Leon Marshal
|Kick-off:||Saturday, 08:35 (GMT)|
|Venue:||Eden Park, Auckland|
|Coverage:||Sky Sports, Sky Sports HD|
|Fixture type:||Test Fixture|
|Home team odds|
|Away team odds:|
With the wait for the first proper British & Irish Lions test almost over, both managers have offered rugby pundits plenty of food for thought with their selections for what is now nicely shaping up to be the test match of the ages. The Lions certainly have their work cut out; in 37 games dating back to 1994 the All Blacks have managed to stay undefeated at Eden Park (the location of the first and third tests), have scored 1,319 points and averaged four tries a game, making it one of the most remarkable records in sport, let alone in rugby. However, with the Lions having had an encouraging build up over the last week with resounding wins over the NZ Maori and the Chiefs they’ve earned the respect of Steve Hansen – even if not the rest of New Zealand – and there’s a real belief now that they possess the fortitude needed to pierce through the seeming invincibility of the Silver Fern.
What a difference seven days can make in the world of test-level rugby. After a sluggish start that saw the Lions suffer narrow defeats against the Blues and the Highlanders, supporters on both sides were wondering whether Gatland’s men would be able to mount a stern-enough challenge for the back-to-back world champions. Now, after having proven that their watertight rush defence and domineering set piece can snuff out even the most potent attacking threats in the game, people seem to be taking note of the grit and resilience of the touring side that his set to ask some probing questions of Steve Hansen’s All Blacks. Gatland must be applauded for opting for form over reputation. The brave decision to leave out George North and opt for Eliot Daly and Liam Williams on the wings means that there’s some real pace and flair in the Lions back three, which suggests they’ll be looking to play more rugby than many had perhaps expected. Sam Warbuton stepping aside to allow for Sean O’Brien to come in at open-side and Peter O’Mahony taking over the captain’s duties has also created a perfectly-balanced back row – one that will no doubt give the All Blacks genuine cause for concern.
Steve Hansen has been unusually vocal in the build up to the tests and has now made a few big calls in his selection that few saw coming. The most obvious is the omission of Julian Savea, a prolific and devastating winger who is just four tries short of the record held for the most tries at test level – currently held by Doug Howlett – in place of Reiko Ioane on the left flank. This is either a shrewd manoeuvre to add even more pace and unpredictability to the All Blacks game plan or a mistimed gamble – only time will tell. Kieran Read coming in to replace Ardie Savea and resume the captaincy role is no surprise, however, the decision to opt for Ryan Crotty, who hasn’t played for four weeks and has minimal test-level experience at outside centre ahead of the in-form Lienert-Brown did raise some eyebrows in New Zealand. The forwards are as you would expect: mobile and robust with a physical edge, however, with one or two players clearly lacking sufficient game time you have to wonder whether the All Blacks might just be a little rusty.
Much of the talk about the All Blacks squad has been about the inclusion of the 20-year-old Rieko Ioane ahead of the 53-test veteran Julian Savea on the left wing. Ioane has scored 10 tries in 14 games for the Blues this season and will win his third cap for the All Blacks on Saturday.
Despite having played minimal rugby this year and only having just recovered from a broken thumb, Kieren Read comes back in at number eight to captain the All Blacks for the first test, pushing the explosive Ardie Savea onto the bench.
Gatland has opted for form over experience in his 23-man squad for this weekend. Tour captain, Sam Warbuton has been dropped to the bench in favour of Sean O’Brien, Liam Williams has been given the nod over Leigh Halfpenny and Elliot Daly gets the chance to start on the wing, meaning that George North has been omitted altogether.
Ben Te’o has managed to play his way into the number 12 jersey after impressing in the warm-up games. So too has Jamie George, whose accurate throwing and high work rate has seen him get the nod ahead of Ken Owens and Rory Best. Despite neither player being first choice for Eddie Jones’s England side, they’ve both managed to convince Warren Gatland that they’re ready for the challenge.
|New Zealand:||Moody, Taylor, Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Kaino, Cane, Read, Smith, Barrett, Crotty, Williams, Ioane, Barrett, Smith|
|Subs:||Harris, Crockett, Faumuina, Barrett, Savea, Perenara, Cruden/Sopoaga, Lienert-Brown|
|British & Irish Lions:||Vunipola, George, Furlong, Jones, Kruis, O’Mahony (capt), O’Brien, Faletau, Murray, Farrell, Daly, Te’o, Davies, Watson, Williams|
|Subs:||Owens, McGrath, Sinckler, Itoje, Warbuton, Webb, Sexton, Halfpenny|
The Final Word
With all the build-up and anticipation almost over, it looks as though the rugby world will be treated to exactly the kind of titanic clash many hoped the 2017 Lions test series would be. The Lions have learned a lot over the past few weeks about the unrelenting nature of rugby in New Zealand and just as Warren Gatland had planned, and hoped, they’re now battle-hardened and prepared for the ultimate showdown. There can be no denying that there has been promising week-on-week improvement from the touring side; whether or not this will be enough to get the better of the best team in the world is yet to be seen. This really is a tough one to call, however given the home advantage, we’re inclined to back the All Blacks, but only by a slim margin of no more than five points. Head on over to Paddy Power now and take advantage of some of the best-value prices on the market.