It really is a case of ‘go hard or go home’ for the British and Irish Lions this weekend. Warren Gatland’s side were heavy underdogs going into last weekend’s first Test match of the series at Eden Park and New Zealand didn’t disappoint, eventually running out 30-15 winners. The All Blacks are now unbeaten in their last 38 matches at the iconic Auckland venue – an incredible record to say the least.
And with the Lions set to return to Eden Park for the third and final Test on July 8th, it really is imperative for the tourists to get the better of Steve Hansen’s men this weekend. At the time of writing, New Zealand are valued at just 1/6 to win and 20-year-old Rieko Ioane, who bagged a brace in the first Test, looks well priced at 6/5 to add another score to his growing All Blacks tally.
Wellington has hosted a number of famous rugby games over the years but the Lions could rewrite the history books with a much-needed victory here. Gatland’s men are outsiders at 17/4 but fans will be encouraged by his attacking selection ahead of Saturday’s clash. Plenty of supporters were calling for Johnny Sexton to start in Auckland but Gatland turned a blind eye: they now have their wish.
With Sexton at fly-half, England star Owen Farrell will shift to inside centre. On paper, this is the ideal combination but Gatland’s decision has raised a few eyebrows back home. Sexton and Farrell have played just 74 minutes together in the eight matches on tour and this lack of familiarity could come back to haunt the Lions. Both players are very talented but to beat the All Blacks, EVERYTHING needs to go right.
Maro Itoje’s snub ahead of the first Test shocked plenty of fans and it came as little surprise to see his name on the team sheet. Widely regarded as one of the best locks in world rugby, the Saracens man should give the Lions an edge at the breakdown and Gatland will be expecting big things this weekend. 23/4 for the Lions to win by less than 13 points is a great price and Itoje’s work on defence could make all the difference.
Most important of all, the Lions have to take their opportunities. It is one thing to cut out fundamental errors but it is another to make the right decisions in attacking areas and you must hurt the All Blacks when you get the chance. The Lions created plenty of excellent attacking opportunities but failed to take advantage of those; at the other end of the pitch, New Zealand were ruthless and that is the big difference between the two sides.
Gatland has been brave with his squad selection – it is now time for the Lions to prove their worth. If Sexton and Farrell gel, the tourists could be in business. Going up against the All Blacks is never easy but Rhys Webb’s late try might just inspire the Lions to go for the throat early on. It is going to take a colossal effort from everybody involved but don’t write the Lions off just yet; this series is far from over...
LIONS LINEUP: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Johnny Sexton, Connor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton (c), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
REPLACEMENTS: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell.