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After a unconvincing win over the Provincial Barbarians three days after landing in the country, expectations for what the Lions can achieve on this tough tour are already beginning to wane.
However with the jet-lag excuse no longer viable and a fresh XV named for Wednesday’s game at Eden Park, captained by Wales hooker Ken Owens, those travelling supporters will hope to get a glimpse of the ‘real’ Lions.
The Blues might be the worst of the five New Zealand franchises, but do not be confused, this side is no joke. Packed full of talent from one to 15, they have troubled plenty of sides in Super Rugby throughout 2017.
All Blacks pair Sonny Bill Williams and Charlie Faumuina will both be started on Wednesday but they are far from the sole threats, with the Ioane brothers, Akira and Rieko, ready to test out that Lions’ defence.
Unfamiliar names to those back in the British Isles and Ireland all deserve praise as well for their form this year, from hooker and captain James Parsons to the young lock pairing of Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Scott Scrafton, not forgetting top signing Augustine Pulu and surprise package Matt Duffie. Melani Nanai, such a dangerous finisher, can’t even make the matchday 23.
Motivation is not necessary for most of these players, who know they will only face the Lions once in their careers, and this really is a dangerous Blues outfit capable of winning on Wednesday.
Where then do the Lions get the upper hand? What the selection for this warm-up fixture seems to tell us by and large is which players are likely to be in Gatland’s Test side, for now at least, who will all get a crack at the Crusaders – the likes of Conor Murray and George North, both yet to play on tour, along with Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Owen Farrell, Taulupe Faletau and so on all given the night off.
Settled combinations return in an all-Irish centre pairing, all-Welsh half-backs and an English engine room, but the Lions best bet for dominance feels like the scrum, even up against Faumuina, which means big games are needed from props Dan Cole and Jack McGrath.
In Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell the Lions have in-form wingers hungry for work, and getting them involved as often as possible seems paramount.
Overall however, Gatland will just be desperate to see more cohesion and control than the side who struggled through Saturday’s opener delivered. If the ‘real’ Lions tour is about to start, then it needs a performance to match in Auckland.
Auckland blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Liam Williams