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Crusaders expecting a tight battle against strong Lions line-up

Te'o out to stake a claim for Test start

Ben Te'o makes a break for the Lions against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians
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Sky Sports 1, 8.35am Saturday

Defeat to the Blues in their first clash with Super Rugby opposition has cast a shadow over this Lions tour in the first week but it would be unwise to assume that Wednesday's reverse will change much in the coaches' thinking before their next challenge against the Crusaders.

It might seem that there is now more pressure on the touring side to deliver a victory. But head coach Warren Gatland has always insisted that the first six matches on the tour are about testing combinations and working towards the first clash with the mighty All Blacks on June 24.

True to his word, Gatland has ensured every player in the touring party has been given a start in the first three matches and a few of his selections for the Christchurch clash look likely to be pencilled in for the opening Test.

Alun-Wyn Jones captains the side in the second row, while half-backs Conor Murray and Owen Farrell, winger George North, centre Jonathan Davies and prop Mako Vunipola, all of whom featured in the final, victorious, Test against Australia in 2013, all get their first starts.

It's certainly a strong and experienced line-up for a match some pundits in New Zealand have labelled the 'first Test', against a Crusaders team who have swept all before them in Super Rugby this year.

The 'Saders claimed their 14th straight victory when they edged the Highlanders on Saturday to keep up their 100 per cent record. Coach Scott Robertson has named his strongest team - captain Kieran Read and centre Ryan Crotty are injured - and his tight five are all capped All Blacks.

Robertson says he is expecting the Lions to come out firing in an intense, physical clash and the performance against the Blues suggests the emphasis in the camp has been on the set-piece and line-speed in defence.

What was missing in Auckland was flair in attack, although with such a short time to forge a team it's understandable that the foundations have come first.

The Lions were outscored by three tries to one against the Blues, their only try coming from a line-out catch and drive while the two second-half penalties that looked to have put them in a winning position came from their forward dominance.

Winning scrum penalties won't be enough to beat the All Blacks and may not get them past the Crusaders, but forward pressure can keep them in a game and set up opportunities.

Although the Lions ended up on the wrong side of a 22-16 scoreline against the Blues, both sets of players and coaches admitted afterwards the game could have gone either way and the Lions can ensure this match remains a contest too.

While the Crusaders have looked head and shoulders above the rest in Super Rugby, their results have fallen in two categories. Against their fellow New Zealand sides and Australian Conference winners the Brumbies, their margins of victory have been four, three, nine, eight, seven and three points. The most recent of those was against the Highlanders on Saturday and came courtesy of last-minute drop goal.

Against the rest of their opponents the Crusaders have dotted up by 28, 19, 47, 33, 27, 38 and 22 points, and the contrast between those two sets of results could not be starker.

The Lions will come prepared for a battle and the experience in their ranks should tell. They are two-point underdogs on the handicap but a wiser approach could be to take a shorter price that they stay within four.

And if their backs are to have more of a say this time, Ben Te'o looks a huge price to go in. Gatland's style of play is built on a powerful runner at inside centre to create space out wide, but Te'o has shown his all-round strength in an England shirt and must feel he is being offered a chance to stake a claim for a Test place on his second start.

Recommendations
British & Irish Lions +4
2pts 8-13 Betfred
B Te'o to score a try
1pt 13-2 Paddy Power

The Crusaders claimed their 14th straight victory when they edged the Highlanders on Saturday to keep up their 100 per cent record
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