CAN the British & Irish Lions turn over the All Blacks in their famed Auckland fortress? Rugby Union expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his best bets for the 1st Test on Saturday morning.
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions | Saturday 08:35 | Sky Sports
The wait is almost over – 1,448 days since the British and Irish Lions ended a 16-year wait for a series victory by beating Australia in a pulsating 3rd Test decider in Sydney, the biggest challenge in world rugby presents itself.
The Lions are 7/2 (Ladbrokes) outsiders to earn their first Test win against New Zealand since 1993 when they take to the field at Eden Park on Saturday morning, a venue the tourists have returned just W1-D1-L6 in eight previous visits – their sole success arriving way back in 1959.
The historic 1971 squad were the last to win a Test series against the All Blacks down under and since then the hosts have claimed 12 victories from 14 against the Lions, including a 3-0 whitewash in 2005 by an aggregate score of 107-40.
The Lions have been severely tested already, suffering two defeats against the Blues and Highlanders in midweek matches. Warren Gatland’s had his fair share of critics but back-to-back victories has grown confidence in the camp.
Impressive weekend wins against the Crusaders and Maori – both packed with world-class game-breakers – has encouraged travelling supporters and the Lions have certainly excelled in the defensive arts of the game.
The Lions passed their two toughest encounters by conceding just 13 points over 160 minutes of rugby and restricting the Crusaders – the leading Kiwi franchise and runaway Super Rugby leaders – to their lowest score at home in the Super Rugby era.
Four of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby sides will contest the play-offs, highlighting the strength in depth available in the New Zealand game. So whilst the schedule was criticised before a ball was kicked, it’s potentially proven crucial to the tourists who arrive match fit and battle-hardened.
Lions Team News
Gatland promised to reward form players, made it clear no place in the starting XV was set in stone and insisted his side would play with flair. His selection hints at a pack primed for a physical confrontation but with a backline sprinkled with brains, brawn and a crucial touch of attacking X-Factor.
The Hamilton-born boss cannot be accused of taking a conservative approach. Tour captain Sam Warburton has been left on the bench – the first time a skipper has not led the Lions out in the opening Test since 1930 – with the confrontational Munster man Peter O’Mahony getting the gig.
O’Mahony is part of a back-row of Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau that combined so well against the Crusaders and Maori, and a forward pack that suffocated their opposition with gargantuan collisions and set-piece precision.
The Irishman’s an outstanding line-out jumper along with George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones, and with the all-action Mauro Itoje waiting in the wings to provide the side with serious impact off the bench, Gatland’s group have a plethora of high-class forward options.
Liam Williams and Elliot Daly were surprise inclusions ahead of Leigh Halfpenny and George North but the pair forced their way into the starting XV following strong displays against the Chiefs on Tuesday. Daly’s long-range goal-kicking excellence is sure to be utilised as the Lions look to get points on the board.
It’s an experienced team that includes seven previous Lions in the starting XV and a further three on the bench. But it’s also a side that few would have predicted before the group left for the Southern Hemisphere; bookmaker odds suggested just eight of the side for Saturday were favourites for their position back on 1 June.
Wet weather is expected in Auckland in the lead-up and strong winds are also forecast; although it may be dry for kick-off, we can expect slippery conditions. This should favour the tourists who’ll prefer to play a tight game and use Conor Murray’s pinpoint boot to gain territory.
First and foremost, Gatland will demand his team wrestle the initiative up front. The Lions will seek to dominate New Zealand at the set-piece and suffocate them with their rush defence, cutting down the Kiwis’ supreme offloading game and reducing the number of line-breaks from the hosts.
However, the Lions back three boast flair, pace and attacking ambition so don’t expect the tourists to rely solely on grit, grunt and kicking for goal. Owen Farrell and Murray are top-notch conductors whilst Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies possess the gain-line vision and ambition to put Gatland’s men into position.
But the unanswered question remains open – do the Lions have the clinical edge to make their opportunities count on the scoreboard? On the evidence thus far, possibly not.
All Black Form
What were you doing back on 3 July 1994?
Support for Prime Minister John Major was on the wane, Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet was topping the charts and Nemesis had only just opened at Alton Towers. Oh… it was also the last time the All Blacks were beaten at Eden Park.
New Zealand have since secured one draw and 37 successive victories at their favoured fortress. The double world champions haven’t actually lost a home match since 2009, a run of 36 wins on the spin where only five sides have gotten to within single figures of the Kiwis.
Steve Hanson’s side have outscored opponents 1010-372 in his 29 home games in charge – an average of 35-9 – and in their last 10 Tests in front of their adoring home supporters the All Blacks have ran in an incredible 62 tries. No wonder the boss believes this team are amongst the greatest ever to play the game.
It’s just three defeats in 54 Test for the hosts and a W22-D0-L1 record in their last 23 encounters at any venue, whilst they kicked-off their 2017 campaign with a 12-try, 78-0 demolition of Samoa last Friday. But it’s worth mentioning, the All Blacks were a little rusty in the opening exchanges and rather fortunate to lead 7-0 after the opening 20 minutes.
All Black Team News
Captain Kieran Read has been passed fit to start at number eight alongside Jerome Kaino and Sam Cane in the first-choice back row but Hansen has sprung a surprise on the left-wing by handing 20-year-old Rieko Ioane a first Test start over try-scoring machine Julian Savea.
Ryan Crotty is also included having recovered from injury to start at centre ahead of Anton Lienert-Brown. The latter linked up well with ex-Chiefs team-mate Sonny Bill Williams in the centre against Samoa but Hansen’s opted for Crotty’s straight-running, all-round class for Saturday.
Ben Smith’s counter-attacking threat from full-back must be respected whilst Israel Dagg’s ability under the high ball could prove pivotal should the Lions opt to bombard the All Blacks back-three in potentially hazardous handling conditions.
All in all, the world champions have few apparent weaknesses in a full-strength XV. But their relentless mentality, clinical finishing and overwhelming winning record marks them out as undisputed favourites.
How Can The Lions Win?
If the Lions are to stand any chance of upsetting the odds, they simply must stifle the slick All Blacks attack at source. Williams’ trademark offloads will be difficult to guard against but the Lions are confident their defensive structures can restrict the Kiwis’ opportunities in key areas.
With an adventurous selection Gatland’s recognised that to beat New Zealand, you simply must cross the whitewash and score five-pointers. The All Blacks’ four losses since 2012 saw their opponents’ notch no fewer than three tries and a minimum of 27 points in victory – but so far on tour, the Lions have scored only 10 tries in six games, two of which have been penalty tries.
More often than not, matches against the Kiwis tend to be seven-point ball games going into the final half hour. Clive Woodward’s research reveals that New Zealand have led by more than seven points after 50 minutes in only 15/28 (54%) of home Tests against tier one side since 2012.
It’s likely the Lions will find themselves within touching distance of the All Blacks but unfortunately, I’m not convinced they can limit such a well-oiled machine for the full 80.
The final 20 minutes of the aforementioned sample saw the Kiwis outscore their opposition 279-91 – 10-3 on average – whilst eight visiting teams have managed to accumulative just 24 second-half points here since 2016.
The Betting Angles
The stunning stats above suggest the second-half to be the Highest Scoring Half is a real runner at 5/6 (Bet365). It’s an angle that’s provided profit in seven of New Zealand’s previous 10 games on home turf. However, I’m happier snapping up the 10/11 (Paddy Power) available on the All Blacks overcoming a -5.5 second-half handicap.
I’ve already pinpointed the relevant trends and although the Lions bench commands respect, it’s difficult to oppose the hosts following their familiar pattern against a side that’s only been together for little over a month at most.
The main handicap line has been set at 11 and feels a fair assessment. But rather than take the even-money on offer from Ladbrokes, I’m going to have a small play on the Winning Margin being between 11-20 in New Zealand’s favour with Betfred, whilst also having a wee nibble on one of SkyBet’s RequestABets.
The hosts are averaging six tries a game in their 15 outings since lifting the 2015 World Cup and with Israel Dagg notching in six of his most recent seven encounters on home soil, I’m all over the 9/4 for New Zealand to win, to cover a -6 handicap and Dagg to dot down.
Finally, reigning World Rugby Player of the Year winner Beauden Barrett has the skills to outsmart all rivals but the instrumental fly-half has recently marked himself out as a regular try scorer for the Kiwis; crossing the whitewash 11 times in 14 appearances over the past 12 months, taking his tally to 20 in 50 Tests. He’s 5/2 (Betfred) to notch another.
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions – New Zealand -5.5 second-half handicap (10/11 Paddy Power)
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions – New Zealand to win, New Zealand -6 handicap and Israel Dagg to score at anytime (9/4 SkyBet)
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions – New Zealand to win by 11-20 (5/2 Betfred)
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions – Beauden Barrett to score a try (5/2 Betfred)
With thanks to Russ Petty (@RPetty80) for a number of stats used in this piece. Follow him on Twitter for more fabulous stats throughout the Britain & Irish Lions tour.