Both Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen sprang selection surprises in the naming of their respective teams for the first Test at Eden Park on Saturday.
So, which player vs player match-ups are likely to decide the epic first encounter?
5. Peter O’Mahony Vs Jerome Kaino
If the weather forecast is correct, this game is likely to be played in wet conditions. That means that the battle in the rucks and mauls will be crucial. O’Mahony and Kaino are both no holds barred warriors whose battle over the ball in the tight will be one to savour.
O’Mahony’s inspirational play and character has been rewarded with the honour of the Lions captain’s armband. Kaino is a dual World Cup winner with 78 caps and will be playing on his home turf at Eden Park.
4. Conor Murray Vs Aaron Smith & And Rhys Webb Vs TJ Perenara
Scrum-half will be a hugely influential position in the game. Aaron Smith’s bullet pass will be crucial for Beauden Barrett to have enough time and space to work his magic in the face of the fast line speed of the Lions’ defence.
If the game is tighter, Conor Murray will be the most dangerous player on the field with his lethal sniping runs from rucks and pinpoint kicking game. The two scrum-halves on the bench will also be key to maintaining or increasing the momentum of their sides. Both Perenara and Webb are cocky, confident players who will not be overawed by the occasion and will definitely not go into their shells.
3. Owen Farrell Vs Beauden Barrett
The two premier fly-halves in world rugby meet at last. Farrell has the edge in goalkicking and defence. Barrett out-guns Farrell in running and his short kicking game. Farrell has a longer punt. Barrett has more pace. In passing, a dead heat would probably be declared.
The two have abundant skills but such contrasting game styles that it will be fascinating to see which has the biggest influence on the outcome. Much will depend on Barrett’s early touches of the ball; if Barrett enters ‘the zone’ – he can reach levels of performance beyond even Farrell’s lofty heights.
2. Ben Te’o Vs Sonny Bill Williams
188m, 106kg, 30 years old vs 1.91m, 108kg and 31 years old. SBW is a little taller, heavier and older – and better than Te’o? The Worcester Warriors man has not put a foot wrong on this tour, moving from a surprise initial selection to a Test certainty in the space of three games. His power and accuracy on both attack and defence have been one part of the Lions’ backlines, which have suffocated their New Zealand opposition.
Te’o will aim to run intelligent angles to test Williams’ defence, which looked a touch shaky at first against Samoa. Williams, on his part, will aim to draw in Te’o and a few other loose forwards, and look to make of his trademark magical offloads to Beauden Barrett or Ryan Crotty on his outside. Sonny Bill has worked hard on his conditioning after returning from injury, and is now lighter and faster but still just as powerful as previous models.
1. Anthony Watson Vs Rieko Ioane
Ioane’s selection ahead of both Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo has been termed the surprise that was a long time coming. The two other wingers are desperately unlucky not to make the matchday squad but 20-year-old Ioane deserves his chance to showcase his freakish athleticism on the biggest stage after his commanding two-try performance for the Blues against the Lions in the second match of the tour.
Ioane is reportedly the fastest player in the All Black squad, ahead of even Barrett, and the selection of Ryan Crotty at centre indicates that the All Blacks intend to run him into space. However, this will be his first start for the All Blacks and he can expect more than a few up and unders heading his way from messrs Conor Murray and Farrell.
Anthony Watson is another speed freak who has been a model of consistency so far on tour. Whether he is given a chance to show his wheels on Saturday will depend on coach Gatland’s tactics, and whether unpredictable fullback Liam Williams is able to create opportunities.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
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Read More About: 2017 British and Irish Lions, 2017 lions tour, aaron smith, All Blacks, All Blacks News, Anthony Watson, beauden barrett, ben te'o, conor murray, Jerome Kaino, julian savea, lions news, owen farrell, peter o'mahony, rhys webb, Rieko Ioane, SBW, TJ Perenara, waisake naholo