PREVIEW: Blues v B&I Lions
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The British and Irish Lions know that they will have to shift to a higher gear if they are to beat the Blues at Eden Park on Wednesday.
The Lions started their Tour of New Zealand with an unimpressive 13-7 victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians last weekend in Whangarei.
They will now face the first of five tough New Zealand Super Rugby franchise with a new starting XV.
"We want to improve on the performance on Saturday," Lions assistant coach Rob Howley said in an interview on the Lions website.
"Having been involved in the last two Lions Tours, that is the challenge – coming together in terms of the way we want to play, getting an understanding of our players – it's a work in progress.
"We are still working on our foundations, putting in principles of the way we want to play and having a framework whereby the players have the ability to play what is in front of them.
"We will see improvements on Wednesday, I have got no doubts about that."
Howley knows that the players in the Blues team will be out in full force to put their hands up for All Blacks selection.
"It's a step up and something you look forward to, playing against players for their provincial team," he added.
"There are players that want to be in the All Blacks side and Sonny Bill Williams is one of them.
"They are a very physical side, they are quite direct with great ball carrying, great footwork and that is something we are aware of defensively and we have to take our opportunities when they come.
"It is obviously going to be a step up, we are aware of that, it's seven days since we have arrived and it's a game we can look forward to and hopefully improve on Saturday's performance.
"When you have those partnerships [Locks Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar at scrumhalf and flyhalf and Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne in the midfield], familiarity is important. We feel we have a hugely talented squad. Probably one of the strongest we have picked in the last 12 years and we are fortunate to work with them, we want them to go out and play."
Howley said his team's execution will be important against a talented side like the Blues.
"We want to be clinical, relentless in our process and ruthless because in a couple of weeks we are playing against the most ruthless side in world rugby," said Howley.
"As we said during the last couple of days, we might not have that number of scrums again, we might only have two and we need to be clinical.
"That is the work on, the progress we have to work on and we continue to do that whilst playing games week in, week out.
"That is something you embrace as a Lions coach and a Lions player."
Players to watch:
For Blues: Sonny Bill Williams (if he is fit) could give the Lions a few problems in the midfield with his offloading abilities. George Moala is another player in the midfield who is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball. Out wide Rieko Ioane has been devastating in space. In the pack, Charlie Faumuina is a powerhouse, while loose forwards Steven Luatua and Akira Ioane both have plenty of skills for big men.
For British and Irish Lions: Fullback Leigh Halfpenny is a proven match-winner with his game management from the back and his accurate goalkicking. Centre Robbie Henshaw has the ability to unlock any defence, while scrumhalf Rhys Webb is a livewire when he gets going in open play. In the pack, Christiaan Stander has been one of Europe's best players in the last 12 months and he will be a handful at the breakdowns. Lock Maro Itoje is a world-class player and a lot of attention will be on him in this encounter.
Head to head: The battle between the centres is a mouthwatering one, especially because Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are an established combination. They will be up against some big bruisers in the Blues midfield. Rieko Ioane and Jack Nowell are two powerful ball runners out wide and it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand. Up front, Steven Luatua and Christiaan Stander are too very different No.8s and they have both been in good form in recent months.
Prediction: The British and Irish Lions have selected a team featuring a few familiar combinations in key positions and they should be an improvement from the side that did battle against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians. The Blues have been battling it out in Super Rugby over the last couple of months and the players know each other well. They also have a number of players in contention for All Blacks selection, so they will be wanting to give everything out there at Eden Park. It is a tough one to call, but we think the Blues will take it by seven points or less.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O'Mahon, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Jonathan Sexton, 23 Liam Williams.
Date: Wednesday, June 7
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 (08.35 UK & Ireland time; 07.35 GMT)
Expected weather: Showers are expected around kick-off time with a high of 15 and a low of 9.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Angus Gardner (Australia)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)