British and Irish Lions: A narrow 13-7 victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in the tour opener in Whangarei was followed by a 22-16 loss to the Blues at Auckland’s Eden Park. However, the Lions bounced back in fine fashion last weekend with an impressive 12-3 triumph over the unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch. That win at the AMI Stadium was the Lions’ best performance and result so far, and they’ll look to back that up with another professional display against a dangerous Highlanders outfit.
Highlanders: The Otago-based Highlanders have won ten of their 14 Super Rugby matches so far this season with six bonus points and a points difference of +157. Although they’re ranked fourth from the five New Zealand franchises, the 2015 Super Rugby champions have still made it through to the play-offs for this year’s tournament. Their last defeat was an agonising 25-22 loss away to the Crusaders on 3rd June and, for many on the team, this will be the biggest game of their careers.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has made 15 changes to his XV for game four of the ten-match tour, with only three warm-up games to go until the all-important, must-win first Test against the All Blacks. Although this side has a midweek feel to it, the Lions are 3/4 on to score the game’s first points, and an impressive showing can catapult players right back into contention for a starting berth against New Zealand. In the centres especially, where Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph form an exciting partnership, they’ll look to catch the eye of the selectors to keep the pressure on Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies, who are favourites to form the first Test centre partnership after going so well in Christchurch. The Lions are 8/11 to be leading at half-time, and both Henshaw and Joseph will have a crucial role to play throughout the course of proceedings.
Warburton packs down for the men in red alongside James Haskell and CJ Stander in the back row, with Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson forming the lock pairing, and England props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler either side of Ulsterman Rory Best in the front-row. Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar provide an all-Welsh half-back combination, with Tommy Seymour, Jack Nowell and Jared Payne posing an attacking threat in the back three. After a disappointing showing against the Blues, Nowell especially will be eager to make amends in Dunedin and the Exeter man is 10/1 to be the first tryscorer.
Seven players are unavailable for the Highlanders due to New Zealand and Maori All Blacks commitments – including the likes of Aaron and Ben Smith, Tom Franklin, Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon. Captained by Luke Whitelock, the hosts are 11/4 to claim a famous victory by 1-12 points. Despite some notable absentees, there are still three All Blacks in the XV, in the form of Liam Coltman, Liam Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo. Behind the scrum, Malaki Fekitoa is a danger man to look out for – 100/1 to score what would be a memorable hat-trick.
The Highlanders are 21/10 to score first and lose at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, and must start as slight underdogs given their depleted squad and the Lions recent victory over the Crusaders. Half Time/Full Time odds of 13/2 for a Highlanders/Lions result looks like a tempting outcome and, although this could be another close game like we’ve previously seen on this tour, the tourists - led by returning captain Warburton - should be able to register back-to-back tour victories, albeit narrowly.
- Sports.net’s Top Tip: British and Irish Lions to win by 1-10 points – 17/10