PREVIEW: Maori All Blacks v B&I Lions
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The spotlight will be firmly on Jonathan Sexton when the British and Irish Lions play the Maori All Blacks on Saturday, with the Lions unsure if top flyhalf Owen Farrell will be fit for the first Test.
Farrell, the Lions' leading playmaker, was almost certain to start in the first Test against the All Blacks next weekend until he suffered a thigh strain at training on Thursday.
"He will be back on the field as soon as possible," was all assistant coach Steve Borthwick could offer as a heavily bandaged Farrell watched the Lions train on Friday.
It is an injury that usually sidelines a player for seven to 10 days. But Borthwick would not put a time frame on Farrell's return, saying: "He will be back as soon as he is able to be back."
Gatland had almost settled on his matchday 23 to face the All Blacks next weekend until Farrell's plight threw open the pivotal 10 slot.
Ireland's Sexton, 31, the Lions' star when they toured Australia four years ago, had already been named to start against the Maori.
Farrell was on the bench, possibly to partner Sexton in the second-half playmaker combination which the Lions used against the Crusaders.
But if Farrell does not recover in a week then an out-of-form Sexton is likely to wear the 10 jersey in the first Test.
"Johnny needs more rugby," Gatland admitted when he named his side to face the Maori.
"He knows he hasn't been playing the best but he's got some mojo back and we wanted to give him the start."
Although Gatland has said he did not want to show his Test hand too early, he has telegraphed the core of his top line up by naming 11 players from the team that beat the Crusaders last weekend in the side to play the Maori.
That includes keeping the loose-forward trio of Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony at the expense of tour captain Sam Warburton, who is on the bench.
"He's well aware of the competition that's there at the moment," Gatland said.
"He fully understands that loose-forward trio went outstandingly well against the Crusaders.
"The challenge for them is doing it again, and if they do it again then we will sit down and make what we think is the right selection for the Test matches."
Like the Crusaders game, the clash with the Maori is being seen as an unofficial Test and the Lions can expect to have their defensive systems tested by a side with a reputation for free-flowing rugby.
The backs contain three of the most elusive runners in New Zealand - Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie - with All Blacks scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow to set them alight.
The Maori All Blacks beat the Lions 19-13 when they last toured 12 years ago, and coach Colin Cooper has drummed into his squad that they can do it again.
"It will be about attacking holes and manipulating their defence," said McKenzie.
Players to watch:
For Maori All Blacks: Look no further than the backline, which boasts some of the most exciting talents in New Zealand at the moment. Damian McKenzie, who has dazzled in the fullback position in the last three seasons, will run the show from No.10, while Wings Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder are lethal finishers out wide. James Lowe, who is at fullback, is unlucky not to be an All Black yet as he has shown in Super Rugby that he is one of the most talented and skillful players in New Zealand at the moment.
For British and Irish Lions: Ben Te'o was impressive in the midfield against the Crusaders and he could book his spot in the team for the first Test with another polished performance this weekend. Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton will need a big performance ahead of the first Test, especially if Owen Farrell is still unfit by then. No.8 Taulupe Faletau has been the best Lions player so far in this series and he will be the go-to-man to get over the advantage line once again.
Head to head: The British and Irish Lions have selected a powerful front row and second row and they look set to dominate the scrum and the line-outs against the Maori All Blacks. Jonathan Sexton is a world-class player and a very different flyhalf to Damian McKenzie, who is better known in the fullback position. The battle between the four wings is worth the ticket alone. Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane, Anthony Watson and George North are players that can light up any match.
Prediction: The British and Irish Lions look like they have an advantage up front and this is where they will try and lay a platform for victory. The Maori All Blacks have some world-class finishes out wide and they will throw the ball around quite a bit on Saturday. It will be a tight affair with the Maori All Blacks edging it by 10 points or less.
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, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon (captain), 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 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 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Elliot Daly.
Date: Saturday, June 17
Venue: International Stadium, Rotorua
Expected weather: The temperature will be in the single digits in the evening and there is also a slight chance of rain. The wind should not be a factor during the match as it will only be "slight".
Kick-off: 19.35 (08.35 UK & Ireland time; 07.35 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Romain Poite (France)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com