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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Lions can overcome tough conditions to pull clear in second half

Lack of preparation may lead to scrappy opening

Stuart Hogg faced the Barbarians in the Lions' opening match of the 2013 tour
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Sky Sports 1, 8.35am Saturday

Barely 72 hours after landing in New Zealand the British & Irish Lions face their opening match, a low-key runout against a representative team of players from the second tier of New Zealand's domestic competition.

The Provincial Barbarians aren't the strongest of opponents for the Lions, although four of their pack have Super Rugby experience, but often in the past the circumstances of the opening match for the Lions have proved harder to overcome than the opposition.

The players will have had little time together - and the same will often apply to their opponents - immediately hampering the chances of a fluent performance.

Four years ago the Lions stopped on their way to Australia to take on the Barbarians in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong, in 2009 they needed two tries in the last five minutes to overcome a determined Royal XV in South Africa, while the 2005 squad played a 'home' Test against Argentina before departing for New Zealand and were held to a 25-25 draw in Cardiff.

The opposition this time is weaker than any of those sides but the tight schedule with another three-hour trip from Auckland on top won't make life easy. The weather - sustained heavy rain in the North Island is forecast to clear only in the hours before kick-off - plus a determination from the Provincial Barbarians to front up and make a game of it will all count against the touring teams.

The overriding characteristic of opening matches is that they have been games of two halves. Even against a fairly uninterested Baa-Baas side in Hong Kong four years ago it took nearly half an hour for the Lions to get on the scoresheet. They led 23-3 at the break before pulling away for a 59-8 final scoreline.

Against South Africa's Royal XV in 2009 the Lions trailed 18-10 at half-time, having been 18-3 down at one stage, and although a 37-25 final scoreline wasn't the most convincing they were far stronger as they grew into the game.

The players in the Provincial Barbarians line-up are hardly household names, although as has been well publicised fly-half Bryn Gatland is the son of Lions coach Warren, while full-back Luteru Laulala is the brother of former Cardiff and Munster centre Casey.

But coach Clayton McMillan said of his selection: "We've gone with a line-up giving us a bit of size," suggesting the early exchanges should be well contested.

The handicap opened up at 30 points but has been pushed up to 35 following the announcement of a strong Lions team, with experience and power up front. But the best handicap wager must be that the Lions cover a 16.5 line after the break as the hosts start to flag and the Lions unleash fresh legs off the bench.

In games like this tries can come from right through the ranks, but if the surface and ball are greasy complex back moves may flounder and it's worth looking to the forwards to get on the scoresheet.

Number eight Taulupe Faletau is an obvious pick at a shade of odds-against but at a bigger price try lock Iain Henderson, who is a powerful presence and a rangy runner. He has five tries to his name for Ireland including the winning score in the Six Nations against England this year.

The Lions were forced into a late line-up change on Friday as Jared Payne, named on the bench, was struggling with a calf strain. Elliot Daly of Wasps, who played in last weekend's Premiership final, takes his place.

Recommendations
Lions -16.5 on second-half handicap
3pts 4-5 Paddy Power
I Henderson to score a try
1pt 11-4 Betfair, Paddy Power

The overriding characteristic of opening matches is that they have been games of two halves
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