British and Irish Lions: The men in red have won three of their five matches so far, with three Saturday victories coming against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, Crusaders and Maori All Blacks, and two midweek losses to the Blues and Highlanders. The recent 32-10 victory over the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua was the Lions’ best performance to date, but the dirt-trackers will look to finally prove their worth and secure back-to-back victories for the first time on this tour.
Chiefs: The Waikato-based Chiefs are currently third in their Super Rugby New Zealand conference on 53 points with 11 victories, two draws and one loss from 14 games. A points difference of +282 and 7 bonus points highlights their attacking potential, and they come into this clash having won their past two games – a 46-31 triumph over the Waratahs and 17-14 victory over the Hurricanes. They should give their visitors a real examination, although they are missing several key players through injury and Test commitments.
The Lions are 4/1 to come away with the victory by 6-10 points, but the build-up to this game has been overshadowed by huge debate over the tourists’ decision to call up six players to act as midweek cover from the bench to protect the Test team, seemingly selected purely on their geographical location. Wales are currently in New Zealand, so the quartet of Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis find themselves on the bench for the Chiefs game, alongside Scotland’s Allan Dell and Finn Russell.
Lions Iain Henderson, Greig Laidlaw, Dan Biggar and Elliot Daly are the only survivors from the Maori All Blacks game, as head coach Warren Gatland looks to keep his first-choice side fresh ahead of the first Test. The midweek side are yet to win a game on this tour, but Daly is 10/1 to score the game’s first try in Waikato. Rory Best will captain the visitors after being named in the Queen’s birthday honours to receive an OBE for services to rugby, and is 13/1 to take his side into half time leading by 11-15 points.
Impressive individual performances could yet force the selectors’ hand, and these players aren’t out of Test contention just yet, with the Lions reiterating the Test team won’t be picked until after this game. Ugo Monye in 2009, Martin Corry in 2001 and Jeremy Davidson in 1997 are all players who started the first Test after playing the midweek game that week, so it can happen. CJ Stander in particular will be one player looking to impress in the hope of forcing his way onto the Test bench, and the South African-born flanker is 11/2 to cross the whitewash first for the tourists.
The Chiefs recorded a famous 40-7 midweek victory over Wales last summer, and the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby champions will be eager to claim another historic scalp under head coach Dave Rennie. The home side are 5/4 to be the first side to reach ten points, and a tempting 13/5 to consign the Lions to another defeat by 1-12 points. Veteran fly-half Stephen Donald - the man who kicked the All Blacks to glory in the 2011 World Cup final - skippers the hosts, and although they’re missing the likes of Kane Hames, Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe and Damian McKenzie, they’re 19/10 to emerge victorious by any scoreline.
Hika Elliot and Liam Messam have been name as replacements after appearing for the Maori All Blacks at the weekend, alongside Bay of Plenty’s Chase Tiatia and Luteru Laulala of Counties Manukau who could both make their Chiefs debuts off the bench. Tim Nanai-Williams will be one to look out for in their backline, and the Samoan is 5/2 to score a try at any time.
Although the Chiefs will play an exciting Kiwi style of rugby that has been so evident and pleasing thus far on this tour, the Lions midweek brigade will surely come together to claim that elusive first victory. After the impressive success over the Maori All Blacks, it’s imperative that winning momentum continues before they collide against New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland.
- Sports.net’s Top Tip: British and Irish Lions to win by 11-15 points – 7/1