Defence and forward dominance still come first for new-look Lions
Rookie Ioane can step up again with a score
Sky Sports 1, 8.35am Saturday
“It’s all about the Test series,” has been the constant refrain of British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland as the tour to New Zealand has unfolded, and now that moment is here as the Lions prepare to face the All Blacks at their Eden Park fortress.
In six tour matches - four wins and two defeats - the Lions have been dogged in defence and solid in the set-piece, and although they began to open up in attack against a weakened Chiefs side on Tuesday, most fans and pundits had expected more of the same in the first Test.
The Lions would seek to dominate New Zealand up front and suffocate them with their rush defence, grind them down over 80 minutes and hold them out. A biblical weather forecast for Auckland, with three days of rain predicted to clear just in time for kick-off, only fuelled that expectation.
But Gatland has pulled a rabbit out of the hat with his selection for the opening showdown, above all by selecting a back three packed with flair, pace and attacking ambition.
England pair Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly are the starting wingers with Liam Williams at full-back in place of his Wales teammate Leigh Halfpenny, the most telling of signs that Gatland is prepared to sacrifice defensive security and metronomic goalkicking for vision and ambition.
That doesn’t mean defence will be abandoned and the Lions will look to run their opponents off their feet from the first whistle. Far from it. The opening exchanges, the first half, maybe even the first hour could still prove as tight and hard-fought as any of the tour matches. But what has been added is the firepower Gatland hopes can apply a finishing touch once the hard graft up front has paid off.
In the likely difficult conditions expect a battle from the off as the Lions look to play for territory and apply pressure through their brute of a pack in the New Zealand half.
The Lions will be desperate to get points on board early on and with Daly's big boot to support frontline goalkicker Owen Farrell even long-distance penalties will offer a great opportunity. The 15-8 that the Lions open the scoring with a penalty looks worth taking, as does the 5-6 that the Lions are within six points of the hosts at half-time.
If a tight start is to be expected, how much the game opens up will depend among other things on the weather. After a wet Thursday the forecast was for more rain during the day on Friday and Saturday but clear skies for kick-off, while strong winds are also expected.
Even if the rain holds off conditions won't be conducive to building attacking phases with ball in hand and we can expect plenty of kicking from both teams.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has sprung a surprise of his own in his back three as winger Julian Savea, who scored against Samoa last weekend to take his tally to a staggering 46 tries in 53 Tests, is dropped and in his place 20-year-old Rieko Ioane makes his first start after two appearances off the bench.
Ioane has faced the Lions twice already, for the New Zealand Maori and for the Blues, and his electric pace and clever footwork that can find a path through a crowd of tacklers may be what has secured his pace.
The Lions have been quick to push up in defence and will surely repeat the tactic as they look to stifle the slick All Blacks attack at source and stop Sonny Bill Williams' trademark offloads.
A smart kicking game is the perfect counter to a rush defence, and Ioane looks the man to get on the end of any clever nudges in behind the Lions defence. He scored a try on his All Blacks debut, coming off the bench in Italy, and for the Blues against the Lions, so take the 15-8 that he cashes in again.
Ioane's inclusion at Savea's expense highlights the depth of attacking options New Zealand boast and that looks the key factor that can swing the match, and the series, their way. If the forecast holds good and no rain falls, a double-figure handicap looks achievable for the hosts although there may not be much more in it.
New Zealand to win by 11 to 20 points
1pt 5-2 Betfred
Lions penalty first scoring play
1pt 15-8 Sky Bet
Lions +5.5 on first-half handicap
2pts 5-6 Betway
R Ioane to score a try
1pt 15-8 Paddy Power