Preview: New Zealand v B&I Lions
TWELVE YEARS IN WAITING: All Black coach Steve Hansen compared Saturday's first Test with the British and Irish Lions to a World Cup Final.
New Zealand will take on a touring party that has been growing in confidence and form.
The Lions have shaken off a slow start to their tour to develop into a formidable force, but they now face the task of handing the world champions their first defeat at Auckland's Eden Park in 23 years.
When the Lions last visited in 2005, New Zealand 'blackwashed' the series 3-0, continuing a run that has seen them win 29 of 38 Tests dating back to 1904.
The latest edition will be a classic clash of Northern and Southern Hemisphere styles, contrasting game plans, and different rule interpretations under South African referee Jaco Peyper.
The tactics will be intriguing, with England lock George Kruis saying the Lions will "try anything" to gain an advantage, including screaming in the line-outs to upset the All Blacks.
"You've got to put pressure on players somehow and that's one way of putting pressure on them," he said.
The All Blacks are confident their speed and sleight-of-hand offloads will get them through the close-marking Lions defence.
The Lions are about power, kick and chase and as their tour has rumbled on, a shadow Test team, formed for game three when they beat the Canterbury Crusaders, have developed into a class unit.
It is a Test that will be intensely physical at the breakdown and it remains unpredictable whether the All Blacks' attacking flair, or the Lions' grunt, will prevail.
"They've selected a side that's capable of playing a different type of game than we play and that itself is intriguing and going to be interesting to see the result once it's been played out," Hansen said.
From the Lions squad that beat the Crusaders, 19 of the 23 remain for the Test including 13 of the run-on side.
Along they way they have fine-tuned a powerful scrum and line-out, and defensive line speed that stifled both the free-scoring Crusaders and Maori All Blacks, conceding only one try. In Conor Murray, they have a kicking scrum-half who can land the ball on a sixpence.
But coach Warren Gatland has also indicated he is open to instinctive play, highlighted by the selection of the attacking Liam Williams, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson as his back three.
"To play the All Blacks you have to be bold, you have to take risks," Gatland said.
"Yes, we play to a structure as every team plays to a structure but [it's about] having the confidence and ability to bring an offloading game in when it's appropriate and we've been trying to do that - not always effectively, but we think we've seen some development."
The All Blacks' back three are the seasoned Ben Smith and Israel Dagg along with two-Test novice Rieko Ioane, the fastest member of the squad who was preferred over prolific try-scorer Julian Savea.
Ryan Crotty, a thinking rather than a flashy player, has been parked at outside centre to marshall the line with Hansen noting that while it will be a physical Test "just as importantly, it will be a mental test".
Inside Crotty is Sonny Bill Williams who will be confronting New Zealand-born Ben Te'o, a former rival from their rugby league days.
Where the All Blacks have broken out of tight situations in the past by having a strong bench to lift them in the final quarter, the Lions have destructive lock Maro Itoje and seasoned fly-half Johnny Sexton in reserve.
Itoje will add force when the pack starts to tire, while Sexton offers the chance to join starting pivot Owen Farrell and switch the game plan to using dual playmakers.
The All Blacks have confirmed Aaron Cruden as their back-up flyhalf after he was earlier bracketed with Lima Sopoaga.
"It's right up there," Hansen said, when asked to compare the Lions tour to winning the 2015 World Cup Final.
"The World Cup's a knockout tournament and the difference with the Lions is you get three [Tests]. So if you stuff the first one up you get another one. And it's the same for both teams. It's exciting."
Player to watch:
For New Zealand: When there's so much talent you can just list the entire team. But the key players are captain Kieran Read for his calmness and amazing workrate, as well as fullback Ben Smith for his counter-attacking skills and solid defence. You would expect centre Sonny Bill Williams to produce one or two moments of magic, perhaps the ply that seals a win for his team. The breakdown work of flank Sam Cane and strength of fellow loose forward Jerome Kaino are also to be admired.
For the British and Irish Lions: No doubt Owen Farrell at flyhalf will have a crucial role to play, while the kicking game of scrumhalf Conor Murray will be vital to the team's cause as well. There is No.8 Taulupe Faletau's carrying ability and the captaincy of flank Peter O'Mahony. They also have class all over the park.
Head to head: You would not want to take your eye off the midfield battle, where two Rugby League converts Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand) and Ben Te'o (B&I Lions) will go head-to-head in the inside centre channel. The battle in the halfback positions could be decisive - the sublime attacking skills of All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett and scrumhalf Aaron Smith against the structured approach of B&I Lions No.10 Owen Farrell and No.9 Conor Murray (especially the latter's sublime kicking skills). The most tantalising battle up front is in the second row - New Zealand locks Samuel Whitelock and Brodie Retallick against their Lions counterparts George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones.
Most recent results:
2005: New Zealand won 38-19, Auckland
2005: New Zealand won 48-18, Wellington
2005: New Zealand won 21-3, Christchurch
1993: New Zealand won 30-13, Auckland
1993: B&I Lions won 20-7, Wellington
1993: New Zealand won 20-18, Christchurch
1983: New Zealand won 38-6, Auckland
1983: New Zealand won 15-8, Dunedin
1983: New Zealand won 9-0, Wellington
1983: New Zealand won 16-12, Christchurch
Prediction: The British and Irish Lions do have a realistic chance of winning the first Test, but don't put your house on it. The all-round class and skill of the All Blacks may catch the tourists by surprise. The Lions' defence showed they can shut down the creative play of New Zealand teams, but the collective skill in the All Black team is a huge step up from what they were confronted with in any of the build-up matches. We expect New Zealand to ease ahead in the final quarter and win by nine points.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Thomas Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te'o, 11 Elliot Daly,10 Owen Farrell, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony (captain), 5 George Kruis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Leigh Halfpenny.
Date: Saturday, June 24
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT, 08.35 BST)
Expected weather: Rain, with possible heavy falls, easing to the odd shower by evening. Strong southwest easing evening. High of 15°C and a low of 11°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Jérôme Garcès (France)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
AFP & @rugby365com