PREVIEW: Maori All Blacks v British & Irish Lions

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Lynn McConnell     15 Jun 2017     Getty Images

Maori All Blacks v British & Irish Lions, Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua, 17 June 2017.

Eight encounters have been played between the two sides with the Maori All Blacks' only win being achieved by the Jonno Gibbes-led side of 2005. But the only wide margin between the sides was that of the 1971 Lions team who had a 23-12 win. One of the more amazing games between the combatants was in 1993 when the Maori All Blacks got out to a 20-0 lead by half-time in Wellington only to be run down by a fast-finishing Lions side who won 24-20. The Lions enjoyed their association with Athletic Park, their last, as that was where they won the second Test of that series. The 1977 game saw the Lions win 22-19 at Eden Park with New Zealand Maoris halfback Sid Going scoring two tries in what was his last international appearance. 

For the Lions, the game is the chance to make a definitive statement for inclusion in next week's first Test at Eden Park. The Lions will look to build on the effort against the Crusaders last weekend, and to lift the overall momentum of the side after the midweek loss to the Highlanders. Just how determined coach Warren Gatland is to get back on track is obvious from the inclusion of eight players who appeared in the last Test of the Lions series in Australia in 2013. And one of his key demands is to improve on the side's discipline which has caught them out, especially against the Highlanders, and the Blues. The choice of Peter O'Mahony as captain from the blindside of the scrum is a hint that the Irish loosies O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien may be Gatland's first-choice options for the Test. The same appears to be the case for England locks Maro Itoje and George Kruis, Itoje being one of the most impressive of the tourists. Among the backs, the combination between second five-eighths Ben Te'o and centre Jonathan Davies is being trialled while there will be interest in how Leigh Halfpenny blends in at fullback. 

All the games against opponents overseas pale in comparison to what the opportunity to play against the Lions means to Maori players. Anyone who ever doubted that needs only to recall the 2005 game between the sides. While All Blacks duty has denied the Maori some of their finest, there is still enough power, strength, flair and experience in this combination to give the Lions a good test. They will be tested in the scrum, and that will not surprise anyone. They have the ability to compete in the lineouts although how their defensive work against the lineout maul stacks up could be a crucial area. They will be competitive, and strong, in the loose exchanges while the decision to play Damian McKenzie at first five-eighths is intriguing. It is his favoured position but how he channels personal aspirations to the team's requirements could be crucial. Being down on strength might have been a concern before the Highlanders' success on Tuesday but the example has been laid down and the New Zealand Maoris will be keen to respond.
Maori All Blacks: 1.Kane Hames, 2.Ash Dixon (captain), 3.Ben May, 4.Joe Wheeler, 5.Tom Franklin, 6.Akira Ioane, 7.Elliot Dixon, 8.Liam Messam, 9.Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 10.Damian McKenzie, 11.Rieko Ioane, 12.Charlie Ngatai, 13.Matt Proctor, 14.Nehe Milner-Skudder, 15.James Lowe.
Substitutes: 16.Hika Elliot, 17.Chris Eves, 18.Marcel Renata, 19.Leighton Price, 20.Kara Pryor, 21.Bryn Hall, 22.Ihaia West, 23.Rob Thompson.
British & Irish Lions: 1.Mako Vunipola, 2.Jamie George, 3.Tadhg Furlong, 4.Maro Itoje, 5.George Kruis, 6.Peter O'Mahony (captain), 7.Sean O'Brien, 8.Taulupe Faletau, 9.Conor Murray, 10.Johnny Sexton, 11.George North, 12.Ben Te'o, 13.Jonathan Davies, 14.Anthony Watson, 15.Leigh Halfpenny.
Substitutes: 16.Ken Owens, 17.Jack McGrath, 18.Kyle Sinckler, 19.Iain Henderson, 20.Sam Warburton, 21.Greig Laidlaw, 22.Owen Farrell, 23.Elliot Daly.