Significance of Blues battle now amplified for the Lions
Warren Gatland’s tourists march on Eden Park needing to build some momentum
Warren Gatland’s side head to Eden Park looking to build some momentum. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Blues v British and Irish Lions
Venue: Eden Park Kick-off: Wednesday 7.35pm local time (8.35am BST)
On TV: Live on Sky Sports
This is a bigger game than it perhaps looked before the Lions set off to New Zealand, and if anything it has assumed more importance since they arrived. For starters it is their first midweek game, and first testing of the waters against the weak link of the truly superb Super Rugby franchises hereabouts, as well as the first of three games in the citadel of New Zealand rugby that is Eden Park.
As if all that wasn’t significant enough, the nature of the Lions edgy 13-7 win over a Provincial Barbarians XV in Whangarei didn’t exactly bowl over the home media, or generate any real surge in confidence or momentum for the tourists. The performance here against the Blues will go a significant way to achieving that, or not.
Lose this one, here, with nothing but harder challenges seemingly in the offing, and the negativity will descend on the Lions from all angles. Win it, by hook or by crook, and that would at least make it two wins from two.
Pressure is on
So there’s big pressure on a completely revamped Lions team featuring 11 players in the starting XV who will be making their first appearance in the famous red jersey.
Among them are four Irish players, the midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, as well as Jack McGrath and CJ Stander, with another Lions newcomer Peter O’Mahony set to join them from the bench, as well as Rory Best and Johnny Sexton. Another of the newcomers, Ken Owens, will captain the side.
Warren Gatland and co have tried to ensure some additional cohesion in a composite side by not only re-uniting the Henshaw-Payne partnership, but also starting the Ospreys and Welsh half-back pairing of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, as well as the English secondrow combination of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes.
Barring injuries, the composition of the side to face the unbeaten, table-topping Cruasders in Christchurch can also now be speculated upon in advance.
Gatland confirmed that the 11 players yet to start either of the first two games should therefore all come into Saturday’s team, namely Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, George Kruis, O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North.
Sonny Bill Williams
The Blues will be direct and inventive. They have an array of big ball-carriers, spearheaded by Sonny Bill Williams, who still has the most sensational offloading game in the world. They are potent and typically alert to the merest hint of opportunity, be it counter-attacking, latching onto a turnover, a quick tap or quick throw, and that can often be from their own 22.
However, they are not nearly as clinical as they should be in closing out games - witness their failure to see out a winning position at home to the Chiefs two games ago. Nor are the Blues as organised and ruthless in defence as their Kiwi counterparts. Hence they lag well behind the four of them, and have not registered a win this season against a fellow New Zealand side. But, hey, they have eight All Blacks in their ranks.
“We’ve been saying that all along; how strong New Zealand rugby is at the moment,” said Gatland. “The derby games are so competitive and the Blues have only lost to one non-New Zealand side, which shows how strong they are. They have some real quality individuals who are game-breakers and even though they are bottom of the New Zealand conference, they are not far away and a couple of games that they have dropped have been in the last few minutes of close encounters.
“We know how tough it is going to be on Wednesday night, with them playing at home and it is a huge challenge for us. But that is what we are here for. These games will help us prepare and get to grips with the intensity of what New Zealand rugby brings and what Super Rugby brings - and help us prepare for the Test matches.”
Gatland was also somewhat defensive in light of the barbs coming his way, and bristled at the notion that the Lions will only be able to play one way, ie Warrenball and all that.
“I kind of look and go: ‘Was it when we were successful at Wasps or when I was coaching Waikako in the Air New Zealand Cup. I don’t know. When did a certain style change? If you can tell me the answer to that I will answer the question when the time frame is appropriate - then I can potentially give you an answer.
“Look, a few years ago Brian Smith coined a phrase ‘Warrenball’ and I don’t know whether that was because he was jealous of how much success we had. We had a group of players who came through Wales at the time who ended up being pretty big physical players. The modern game of rugby is about getting across the gain line, trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that is possible. If you can get me when things started to change, I don’t know.”
As ever, he and the Lions will be judged primarily results, continuing – and moving up a notch – here in Eden Park.
Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons (capt), Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scrafton, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua. Replacements: Hame Faiva, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kara Pryor, Sam Nock, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane.
British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny; (Toulon, Wales); Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, England), Jared Payne (Ulster, Ireland), (Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Dan Biggar (Ospreys, Wales), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales); Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), Ken Owens (Capt, Scarlets, Wales), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, England), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), James Haskell (Wasps, England), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland). Replacements: Rory Best (Ulster, Ireland), Joe Marler (Harlequins, England), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Munster, Ireland), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, Scotland), Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).
Head to head: Played 15. Auckland 6 wins. 1 Draw. Lions 8 wins.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 15/8 Blues, 19/1 Draw, 4/9 Lions. Handicap odds (Blues +6pts) 10/11 Blues, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Lions.
Forecast: Lions to win.