Best Bet 1: TBC
NEW ZEALAND ($1.20) VS BRITISH & IRISH LIONS ($4.75)
The biggest match of the 2017 World Rugby calendar kicks off at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday evening between New Zealand and the British & Irish Lions. The All Blacks opened up their international campaign with a 78-0 drubbing of a ‘strong on paper’ Samoan outfit last weekend in Auckland, running in twelve quality tries. The Lions ‘main’ team secured their second consecutive victory, with a dominant 32 – 10 win over the New Zealand Maori in Rotorua and their ‘mid-weekers’ secured a confidence-boosting 34-6 victory over the Chiefs. Twelve years ago, the All Blacks handed the Lions a 3-0 series loss and notably, the Lions have only once won at this venue, in 1959.
The All Blacks showed against Samoa that even with very little preparation and combinations for that matter, the synergy is there and the players are all on the same page. The forwards know they are going to be targeted up front and they need to meet fire with fire, to allow their extremely talented backs to capitalise on the front-foot ball. In Super Rugby, the Crusaders showed earlier this season that no matter how good the Hurricanes backline is, if they don’t have quality ball to use, their time is limited and they are forced to make rushed decisions – which showed, don’t always come off. This was also the case for the Lions against New Zealand Maori.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has sprung a surprise when naming his team to face the Lions this week. The front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks is as expected, with the best lock pairing in the world, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in the engine room behind them. Kieran Read returns from two months out due to a thumb injury to captain the team from number eight, with stalwart Jerome Kaino and Sam Cane on the flanks. Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett form an intelligent and incisive halves combination with Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty selected in the centres. Blues bolter Rieko Ioane has been thrown into the deep end on the wing, but the 20-year-old has more than enough class, power and speed to handle everything the Lions throw at him. He was influential in the Blues win over the Lions a few weeks ago. Israel Dagg has been chosen on the right wing with the versatile and dangerous Ben Smith set to wear the number 15 jersey. On the bench, Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Faumauina will offer front row support, with Scott Barrett and Ardie Savea also likely to get some game time. TJ Perenara will have a big role to play if Hansen grants him some minutes and Aaron Cruden has been bracketed with Lima Sopoaga. Anton Lienert-Brown rounds out the matchday 23 and is a player that seems to play his best rugby for the national team.
The Lions have shown in their wins against the Crusaders (Super Rugby leaders), New Zealand Maori and Chiefs that they will look to get on top in the set pieces, pressure the breakdown, kick their penalty goals and play field position. They aren’t overly concerned about scoring tries and they very much see a win being a win, regardless of the journey it takes to get there. Their defensive structures, effort and attitude have been the highlight of their tour so far, only conceding seven tries in six games.
Warren Gatland has gone with form over favourites with his selections for this week’s match. The front row is a strong one of Mako Vunipola (England), Jamie George (England) and Tadgh Furlong (Ireland). Maro Itoje has been left out of the starting fifteen with Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales) and England’s George Kruis granted the locking berths. Peter O’Mahoney of Ireland has been entrusted with the captaincy alongside countrymen Sean O’Brien and number eight Taulupe Faletau (Wales). Conor Murray (Ireland) and Owen Farrell (England) will play a pivotal role in determining the visitor’s chances in this one and Gatland has opted for ‘Warrenball’, which will see the Auckland-born Ben Te’o start at inside centre instead of a second play-maker, which could happen in the second half of the match or if they are in trouble early on. Jonathan Davies is a complete player at outside centre and George North has been overlooked on the wing and has been replaced by England’s Elliot Daly. Anthony Watson will provide some thrust from the right wing with Liam Williams a great attacking option at fullback. Gatland has named a strong bench with Ken Owens (Wales), Jack McGrath (Ireland) and the man-mountain Kyle Sinckler (England) selected as front row reserves. Maro Itoje and tour captain Sam Warburton will give the visitor’s a lift when they get some time off the bench, as will Rhys Webb (Wales), Jonny Sexton (Ireland) and Leigh Halfpenny (Wales).
Unfortunately, it looks like the weather is going to be a big factor in this match. It has been raining in Auckland most of the week and it is forecasted to continue throughout the weekend. It is very much a contrast of styles with the Lions set to slow the game down and the All Blacks ready to play the game at speed to show their superior fitness and skill sets under pressure (as much as the weather will allow them). The Lions will look to kick the ball into the stands, whereas the All Blacks will be looking for those quick line-outs. One of the biggest challenges the Lions are going to have is containing the AB’s offloading game. This is an area that has set them apart from all of their International rivals for many years, as it fractures defensive lines and places a lot of responsibility on a team’s ability to scramble. I expect the All Blacks to gain parity up front at the very least and this is a perfect opportunity for Beauden Barrett to show that he bosses Test rugby. He has made the number ten jersey his own, but now it’s time to start building a legacy, much like Dan Carter did in this series 12 years ago. With a supporting cast including SBW, Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith in the backline, I just can’t see how the visitors can shut all of them down. There are simply too many threats and the All Blacks will keep their 37-match unbeaten run since 1994 alive at the spiritual home of rugby, Eden Park. The weather will more than likely ensure it will be a low-scoring match.
Predicted result: New Zealand to win @ $1.20