British and Irish Lions: With four wins and two losses from their six warm-up games, the Lions come into the Test series having grown in confidence as the tour has progressed. Midweek losses to the Blues and Highlanders were of great concern to the men in red, but victories over the Provincial Barbarians, Crusaders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs will give the Lions real hope going into a gruelling, challenging Test series. Tuesday’s encouraging 34-6 demolition of the Chiefs sees the tourists gain real momentum as the first Test approaches.
New Zealand: New Zealand warmed up for the Test series with a 78-0 annihilation of Samoa in Auckland last Friday. The All Blacks scored 12 tries in all, keeping their opponents scoreless with a masterclass in running lines, ball-handling and support play. Leading 28-0 at half-time, they then put 50 points on a tiring Samoan outfit in the second forty. Their domestic Super Rugby provinces are also performing very well in this season’s conference, with a host of their players in-form and relishing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Gatland knows his Lions side must score tries to secure a historic, famous victory against the All Blacks in what is seen as a ‘must-win’ encounter, and they’re 11/2 to cross the tryline three times. They simply cannot rely on just penalties to beat a potent Kiwi outfit, and the inspired team selection – surprisingly picked largely on form and not reputation - reflects that, especially in the backline. Elliot Daly – priced at 8/1 to be the first Lions tryscorer - and Liam Williams have both forced themselves into the back-three alongside Anthony Watson after impressing midweek against the Chiefs.
Led by Munsterman O’Mahony, the Lions are 9/2 to pull off an extraordinary victory by 1-10 points, and the likes of tour captain Sam Warburton, Maro Itoje, Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny have been named on the bench whilst George North is a noticeable omission from the matchday squad altogether. The Lions are 9/1 to win both halves, and the visitors’ set-piece will be crucial to their hopes of victory. A traditional strength of northern hemisphere rugby, their beefy pack will relish the scrum, line-out and gainline around the fringes, eager to win the ascendency. Anchored by Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong alongside Jamie George in front of Alun-Wyn Jones, the Lions are 7/5 to score first and will look to dominate physical forward exchanges to provide their captivating backline with quick ball to score tries.
New Zealand, captained by returning Number 8 Kieran Read, have named an experienced outfit for the first of two Tests at Eden Park, and are 23/10 to be leading narrowly by 1-7 points at half-time. Ryan Crotty returns from injury to partner Sonny Bill Williams in midfield, with Anton Lienert-Brown having to settle for a place on the bench, and Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Nahalo have been deemed surplus to requirements by the All Blacks, highlighting the strength in depth of New Zealand rugby. Rieko Ioana – 17/2 to be first try-scorer - comes in for his first start in his third Test after a try-scoring performance for the Blues against the Lions in this tour, edging out Savea who has scored 47 tries in 53 Tests.
The hosts are unbeaten in 23 years at Eden Park, and have won 29 of 38 games between the two teams. It would need a superhuman effort from the men in red to bring that streak to an end, and the smart money would be on the All Blacks taking a 1-0 lead as the series heads towards Westpac Stadium, Wellington. The Lions are a magical breed, a collective group brought together every four years to represent four nations on the other side of the world, and supporters will be craving a romantic, heroic victory. However, the XV named is a gamble and they undoubtedly enter the fray as underdogs against the back-to-back world champions.
- Sports.net’s Top Tip: New Zealand to win by 11-20 points – 12/5