PREVIEW: Blues v British & Irish Lions

Getty Images

Lynn McConnell     06 Jun 2017     Getty Images

Blues v British & Irish Lions, Eden Park, June 7, 7.35pm

For all the talk that the Blues are the poorest-performed of the New Zealand franchises it is worth remembering that on the overall table they would sit on seventh place with a play-offs berth if the wildcard system wasn't in use. They have won seven games with a draw, one short of their eight wins last year, with a game to play. That would suggest not a lot has changed between the two seasons but what it doesn't show is the definite steeling of attitude that has occurred and which will make them a dangerous proposition on Wednesday. The Lions are fielding a side completely changed from that which opened the tour in Whangarei. What this combination will have is the advantage of having recovered from jet lag without the exposure to the pace and physicality of game that is typical of New Zealand.

Winning the battle up front will be vital for both sides if they are to entertain thoughts of success. Nothing changes in that regard. The Lions have an experienced core to call on and there will be keen interest in the play of lock Maro Itoje, one of the genuine comers on the world scene, and Courtney Lawes. Against them the Blues have named two inexperienced performers in Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Scott Scrafton, yet the pair have been central to the Blues' improved forward efforts this year. Grafters in the traditional mould, they will be exposed to a different level of play and how they respond could have a lot to do with how the Blues perform. To unleash their backs, the Blues need solidity up front and that will be their challenge.

Coach Warren Gatland has been banging on intently since the Lions arrived that they need to achieve consistency in taking their opportunities against New Zealand sides. They failed to do that in Whangarei. Was that down to jet lag or not being used to the speed and pressure of New Zealand sides? All should be revealed in Auckland where failure to maximise chances could be critical for the tourists. Knowing that the 'fifth Test' awaits them in Christchurch at the weekend, the last thing they need would be heading south after a loss based on little improvement on the Whangarei effort.

The Lions have been consistent in saying every player will start in their first three games on tour to give each player the chance to stake his claim for a Test start. But in the Blues side on Wednesday there are also players on trial for their involvement in the All Blacks team. No.8 Steven Luatua got himself back in favour after time out last year and has been highly-competitive this season. Halfback Augustine Pulu has been on the fringes of Test selection and is only ever an injury away from being called back into the squad. Second five-eighths Sonny Bill Williams needs game time to consolidate what many felt was his first choice selection and in what was a crowded mid-field situation before Ryan Crotty's injury, George Moala, at centre, was also in the mix. Such has been Rieko Ioane's advance this year that he must also have a chance for inclusion and a good performance in Auckland would boost his prospects on the wing.


Blues: 1.Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2.James Parsons (captain), 3.Charlie Faumuina, 4.Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5.Scott Scrafton, 6.Akira Ioane, 7.Blake Gibson, 8.Steven Luatua, 9.Augustine Pulu, 10.Stephen Perofeta, 11.Rieko Ioane, 12.Sonny Bill Williams/TJ Faiane, 13.George Moala, 14.Matt Duffie, 15.Michael Collins.

Substitutes: 16.Hame Faiva, 17.Alex Hodgman, 18.Sione Mafileo, 19.Patrick Tuipulotu, 20.Kara Pryor, 21.Sam Nock, 22.Ihaia West, 23.Faiane/Melani Nanai.

British & Irish Lions: 1.Jack McGrath, 2.Ken Owens (captain), 3.Dan Cole, 4.Maro Itoje, 5.Courtney Lawes, 6.James Haskell, 7.Justin Tipuric, 8.CJ Stander, 9.Rhys Webb, 10.Dan Biggar, 11.Elliot Daly, 12.Robbie Henshaw, 13.Jared Payne, 14.Jack Nowell, 15.Leigh Halfpenny.

Substitutes: 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.