Motivated, experienced Lions should end their midweek misery
Opportunity is still there to stake a claim for a starting place in upcoming Tests
CJ Stander in action against the Highlanders: “Midweek, in Test-week; you’re still putting on a jersey and you want to make your family proud and the boys around you proud.” Photograph: David Rodgers/Getty
Chiefs v British & Irish Lions
Venue: FMG Stadium, Waikato.
Kick-off: 7.35pm local time (8.35am Irish)
On TV: Live on Sky Sports.
Viewed from a distance, being picked in the Lions midweek team might seem like drawing the short straw, and to a degree that is true. Certainly the odds are against any of the team to face the Chiefs being in the starting XV for next Saturday’s first test. Yet there is so much to this game than that.
For example, a tad curiously, CJ Stander was asked what his motivation was going into this game and he said simply: “To win. I’ve started two games that we’ve lost so a big drive is to win. A big drive is also to keep on pushing hard and put your hand up to make sure that you’re in contention for the Test team.”
All of this is true. Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Courtney Lawes and James Haskell also fall into the category of having only played two matches on tour and lost them both.
And while Stander has at least had the consolation of playing the last 24 minutes against the Crusaders, similarly Dan Biggar’s only two starts have been those defeats. Greig Laidlaw, Joe Marler, Rory Best and Iain Henderson have had other involvements in this too, but have also been on the losing end twice.
Hence, all of these players and the rest should have every motivation in the world to be part of a winning Lions team against the Chiefs. Accordingly, any sense of disappointment about being named in the Tuesday team is emphatically refuted by Stander.
“No,” he said with deliberate emphasis when looking his questioner in the eye. “There’s no disappointment. I’m sitting there with an anxiety to hear my name, any number. Today, again, when they were naming the team and you hear your name I still have that rush that I get when I’m selected for any team.
“Midweek, in Test-week; you’re still putting on a jersey and you want to make your family proud and the boys around you proud and you want to play good. You want to make sure that you’re pushing the boys who are getting the jersey. If that’s my job then happy days.”
Stander also adheres to the management line, clearly stressed by Gatland and the coaches, that there were nine changes from the starting XV in the first Test four years ago through the second and into the third.
“Yes, there’s still a chance. I think a lot of boys played well. We all know that and we’re all realistic. We just need to take every chance that we get. The big thing is to go out and win this one. A lot of boys who’ve played midweek have lost so far, so we’re looking for a win.”
For Gatland this is a return to his home town, and the province he played for with distinction, most obviously when part of the first and only Waikato team to beat the Lions in eight attempts in their last meeting in 1993. He also coached them to their only national provincial title since the early 90s in 2005.
“If you cut me open I probably bleed red, yellow and black. Very proud of my roots. It’s a great place to have grown up. Waikato people are incredibly loyal. The amount of support I’ve had is amazing. We experienced that in the 2011 World Cup.”
“It’s nice to be back, catch up with some friends. Really looking forward to a great occasion on Tuesday night, a fantastic atmosphere and a proper rugby ground as well.”
Indeed, with a wonderful, sand-based pitch.
The Chiefs will be captained by Stephen Donald, who led the side to their 40-7 win over Gatland’s Wales last June.
“I was lucky enough to coach Steve for a few years,” said Gatland. “New Zealanders either loved him or hated him. He’s a fantastic individual, great team man, nice to see him play.”
“Twelve months ago I said ‘whatever you do don’t take a dummy from Stephen Donald’, and the first thing he did was throw a dummy and score. So that will be the message again for Tuesday.”
Once more, despite some of the negative media coverage, the Lions will be eagerly received by the New Zealand public, as a crowd of 30,000 is expected for what is sure to be another high-octane and atmospheric occasion.
The Chiefs will assuredly be inspired, and will again demonstrate the incomparable conveyor belt of talent in this country, witness the rout of Wales, with seven of that side starting here. But they are missing a dozen players chosen in the All Blacks and Maori squads from their starting line-ups. Thanks in the main to Stephen Donald’s century of caps, that XV boasts 371 Super Rugby caps.
By contrast, this Lions starting XV boasts 702 Test caps between them. While it will be difficult for the half-dozen call-ups over the weekend to make a significant impact off the bench, this motivated, experienced Lions team ought to have enough about them to break the midweek duck.
CHIEFS: Shaun Stevenson, Toni Pulu, Tim Nanai-Williams, Johnny Faauli, Solomon Alaimalo; Stephen Donald, Finlay Christie; Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Liam Polwart, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Michael Allardice, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Tom Sanders.
Replacements: Hika Elliot, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Liam Messam, Mitchell Karpik, Jonathan Taumateine, Luteru Laulala, Chase Tiatia.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, England), Jared Payne (Ulster, Ireland), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Dan Biggar (Ospreys, Wales), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, Scotland); Joe Marler (Harlequins, England), Rory Best (Ulster, Ireland, capt), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, England), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), James Haskell (Wasps, England), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland).
Replacements: Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues, Wales), Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs, Wales), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons, Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).
Overall head to head (Waikato v Lions): Pl 8, Waikato 1 win, Lions 7 wins.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 17/10 Chiefs, 19/1 Draw, 1/2 Lions. Handicap odds: (Chiefs +5pts) 10/11 Chiefs, 19/1 Draw, 10/11 Lions.
Forecast: Lions to win.