The British and Irish Lions will attempt to give their faltering tour a much-needed shot in the arm when they face the Maori All Blacks on Saturday, live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 8am.
The Lions’ loss against the Highlanders on Tuesday has curbed the momentum gained from their victory over the Crusaders. With the first Test around the corner, Warren Gatland’s side are in dire need of a win to lift spirits.
The Maori All Blacks beat the Lions when they last toured in 2005 and they have named a strong side laden with New Zealand internationals.
Can the Lions return to winning ways in Rotorua or will the Maori condemn the tourists to back-to-back defeats? We analyse five key talking points…
Test jerseys on offer
Several Lions have been given the chance to put their hand up for selection in the first Test.
With Jared Payne and Liam Williams struggling for form and Stuart Hogg out injured, the door is open for Leigh Halfpenny to nail down the No 15 jersey.
Anthony Watson is able to play full-back, but his selection on the wing for Saturday’s fixture shows where Warren Gatland feels the England international is strongest, while Elliot Daly has not had many chances to prove himself on the tour.
Sean O’Brien starts at openside flanker, with squad captain Sam Warburton on the bench and in desperate need of a performance to allay fears he is not at full fitness.
Warburton was warned ahead of the tour that no player’s Test place was guaranteed, even that of the skipper, so he cannot afford to be anything other than imposing when he gets his chance in Rotorua.
The recent injury to Owen Farrell, which has ruled him out of Saturday’s game at the very least, could spell the end of Sexton and Farrell operating together in a 10-12 partnership.
The Ireland international has struggled to stamp his mark on the tour, and another ineffective game could see him on the bench for the first Test if Farrell is fit.
With Dan Biggar replacing Farrell on the bench for this weekend’s fixture, the Wales fly-half will also feel there is a chance to put himself in contention for a crack at the All Blacks seven days later.
Maori inspired by class of 2005
The Maori All Blacks recorded their first-ever win over the Lions in the ill-fated 2005 tour of New Zealand and that result is providing inspiration to the current crop.
Four of the players who featured in that 19-13 win went on to play in the first Test a week later and current Maori coach Colin Cooper hopes he can nudge some of his squad in Steve Hansen’s direction.
“All these players want to represent the All Blacks, and I want to push as many of them as I can to that level,” he said.
“We want them to be proud of who they are and seize the opportunity to represent the Maori, and to aspire to be the best that they can, and that’s to chase a chance with the All Blacks.”
The Maori only came together last weekend but with nine All Blacks in the match-day squad, Cooper isn’t expecting any teething problems.
“There are only three players I have not worked with so there will be a lot of clarity and familiarity for our team,” he said.
Sexton v McKenzie
If you’re in need of a performance to prove your worth to the coach, you don’t want a player like Damian McKenzie lining up opposite you.
The Chiefs flyer, operating at full-back for the majority of the season, has been tearing through defences in Super Rugby; he has made more carries than any other player in the competition, the most metres, and has beaten the most defenders with ball in hand.
The 22-year-old is also in the top 10 for points scored overall, registering 102 points in 14 games. McKenzie is used to playing in space at the back, but is not scared to play a loose game in the middle of the action.
The Kiwi’s style contrasts directly with that of Sexton, who will be pulling the strings with a more measured approach.
The Leinsterman will want to prove to Gatland that he can control proceedings and not allow the Maori All Blacks to dictate the pace of the game.
Whatever happens, a showdown with McKenzie will go a long way to indicating how Sexton would deal with Beauden Barrett, as the two have a similarly attacking outlook.
Paying the penalty
Along with an abject kicking game and blunt back three, one of the biggest issues for the Lions on tour has been their discipline.
In three of their four matches they have topped the penalty count, conceding an average of 12 per game. The only time they haven’t hit double figures was in the win over the Crusaders.
Much has been made of the different interpretations of referees from different hemispheres but the fact remains that the Lions have been conceding needless penalties, from being offside at lineouts to obstruction.
On Saturday, Jaco Peyper takes charge of their clash with the Maori All Blacks. The South African official won few friends in Ireland last November but with Peyper also set to take charge of the first Test, the Lions need to stay in his good books.
A high penalty count will spell trouble against the Maori, and disaster against the back-to-back world champions.
Scrum in the spotlight
The hosts have a wealth of talent running throughout the team; they boast a back three which would light up most international sides, and their loose forwards offer a near-perfect balance between hard work and flair.
But if there is one area where the Maori All Blacks are light in terms of experience it’s the tight five.
Loosehead prop Kane Hames, who played a single Test for New Zealand in last season’s Rugby Championship, is the only member of the home tight five to have tasted international rugby, while the Lions’ tight five have 110 Test caps between them.
The tourists will need that experience, as their scrum has not dominated in New Zealand in the way that was predicted ahead of the tour.
They were exposed in that area by the Highlanders in the most recent loss, with a scrum penalty allowing Marty Banks to kick the winning points late in the game.
“It is an area of strength for us and I don’t think we are going to let one scrum penalty completely derail us but it is something we have to take a look at,” said Rory Best after Tuesday’s defeat – though he did add that the Lions felt the officiating of the scrums had not been consistent.
Former Wales and Lions prop Adam Jones said the Lions need to avoid ‘whingeing’ and understand that application of the law will always differ between referees.
“It is all about interpretation,” said Jones. “Everything is different when you are being refereed by a southern rather than a northern hemisphere ref, so we can’t whinge about it too much – we have just got to crack on.”
If the Lions are to claim a win on Saturday, and set the tone for the rest of the tour, they need to play to their strengths and take charge of the set-piece exchanges.
Maori All Blacks: 15 James Lowe, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow; 1 Kane Hames, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 3 Ben May, 4 Joe Wheeler, 5 Tom Franklin, 6 Akira Ioane, 7 Elliot Dixon, 8 Liam Messam.
16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Leighton Price, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Rob Thompson.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 George North, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 8 Taulupe Faletau.
16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Elliot Daly.