Fixture: The First Test – All Black’s v British and Irish Lions
Stadium: Eden Park, Auckland
This is it. The match we have been waiting 4 years for. After the Lions victorious display in the final test in Australia to clinch the series rugby fans have been waiting for this game with eager anticipation. The Lions will face the All Blacks twelve years after the dreaded tour from hell and I for one am giddy with excitement waiting for kick off.
After all the warm-up games the serious business starts now and the Lions face the toughest fixture there is in world rugby. The All Blacks are so good that they need no hype or introduction. For the last 10 years they’ve been indisputably the number one team in the world losing only a handful of games and winning every trophy there is going. Their record at Eden Park is formidable with the All Blacks having not lost a game there since 1994.
Gatland’s selection caused a few surprises as he went with form over reputation as Williams and Daly were rewarded for their midweek heroics with a place in the starting XV at the expense of Halfpenny and North. The two Welshmen are favourites of Gatland but neither have lit up the tour and Gatland has undoubtedly made the right call selecting the form players. Three Lions players to watch are:
When Te’o left New Zealand in 2007 to play rugby league in Australia few would have predicted his return ten years later as a Lions Test starter. Te’o has been in electric form this tour making hard yards in every game and his tremendous offloading game will be required to break down the All Blacks defence.
Billy Vunipola’s absence from the team was the biggest story before the tour but his absence is feeling felt far less after the Goliath performances from his Welsh cousin. Faletau is the stand out ball carrier in this squad and he will be optimistic on getting one over on his opposite number Read who is coming into the game without any warm ups.
Key All Blacks
The All Blacks captain and Number 8 has rushed back from injury for this first test. Hansen admitted that he only started full contact this week so will undoubtedly be short of match fitness. The Lions will be looking to exploit this lack of match fitness but Read is one of the most experienced back rowers in the game and Hansen will be confident this experience will compensate for a lack of preparation.
The most surprising call up for New Zealand is the uncapped winger Reiko Ioane in place of the test match beast Julian Savea. Ioane’s raw talent is unquestionable but Savea is an accomplished test match player boasting one of the best try scoring records in world rugby.
It’s going to be an intense game and the odds are stacked against the Lions but I’m gonna go with my heart and call a narrow Lions victory.
All Blacks 23 – 27 Lions
British & Irish Lions squad
Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny
New Zealand squad
Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.