After two defeats already in the 2017 Tour, the Lions are under pressure to get back on track, with the first Test match in Auckland fast approaching.
A powerful Lions first team will take on an electric New Zealand Maori selection in Rotorua on Saturday. So which player match ups will see sparks fly in New Zealand’s famous volcanic region?
Johnny Sexton vs Damian McKenzie
There will be many contrasting player styles on show on Saturday, but none more distinct than at fly-half, where the more traditional Sexton, meets the unpredictable McKenzie. Sexton is finding form in this tour and will want an influential performance to push his claims for the Test position on June 24. Expect a lot of direct, no-nonsense play from Sexton, including a lot of up and unders and kicks for territory.
The kicking game of both Sexton and Conor Murray will need to be pinpoint as the Maori backline will tear the Lions apart if they are given too much space. McKenzie has been labelled ‘the Messi of rugby’ and the nickname is no misnomer. He is at his best when he is having fun and expressing himself, and hopefully, we see the full range of the Smiling Assassin’s skills on Saturday. The Lions will definitely target the little man on defence, but McKenzie has worked hard on this area this season and does not lack courage.
Anthony Watson vs Rieko Ioane
These two could potentially meet again in the Test series so this rehearsal has a lot at stake. Ioane has already destroyed the confidence of one English Lions winger on tour and will test the defence of Watson with his devastating pace and power. Ioane probably only needs one more impressive game to put real heat on Julian Savea’s hold on the left wing position for the All Blacks.
Watson has had a solid beginning to his tour, without really unleashing his full attacking game. With the New Zealand Maori likely to play a fast and loose game, Watson may get chances to pounce on mistakes and show his top drawer speed and footwork. It will be interesting to see who comes out out on top if it comes down to a race for the tryline as both Watson and Ioane are probably the quickest in their respective teams.
George North vs Nehe Milner-Scudder
The monster vs the magician in this match up. George North is 1.94m and 109kg and NMS is 1.80m and 90kg so North definitely has the power advantage. However, Milner-Scudder must have some of the best footwork and sidesteps in world rugby (alongside his team mate Damian McKenzie) and he may see a real opportunity to run rings around the Welsh giant.
North had a solid defensive game against the Crusaders but will be desperate to get his hands on the ball in Rotorua to add to his 32 international tries, instead of just chasing box kicks.
Conor Murray vs Tawera Kerr-Barlow
After his dominant Crusaders performance, former All Black coach Graham Henry labelled Murray ‘the best half-back in the world’ and Kerr-Barlow will face a huge challenge trying to negate his influence. Kerr-Barlow is third in line for the All Black’s scrum-half shirt, but is no stranger to high pressure games, having come off the bench in New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup winning run, including the World Cup final.
Much will come down to the pace of the game. If the Lions are able to slow down the play and keep it tight and structured, Murray will be able to boss the game. However, if the Maori are able to win quick turnover ball, Kerr-Barlow will be an important link and supporting runner to his lethal backline.
Peter O’Mahony vs Akira Ioane
The take-no-prisoners blindside from Munster will meet the rising talent from the Blues, Akira Ioane. O’Mahony had a solid game against the strong Crusaders pack and gets the chance to face the Maori as captain of the Lions. Ioane, like his brother Rieko, has already had one impressive performance against the Lions, and Akira has received the confidence boost of being named as injury cover to the All Black test side.
Ioane’s workrate has really caught the eye in recent games, and is developing the consistency to go with his abundant pace and power. He has also developed a bit of a rabble rousing attitude, even getting in the face of South African giant, Eben Etzebeth. O’Mahony may see this lack of discipline as an area to target on Saturday.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena