The tactical nous of influential halfbacks Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett should enable the All Blacks to overcome the British & Irish Lions in Saturday’s first Test at Eden Park, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In what is the most highly anticipated encounter since the 2015 World Cup final, the mighty All Blacks are set to face their sternest test since clinching the Webb Ellis Cup, during which time they have won all but one clash.
Although the Lions have produced a mixed bag of results so far in New Zealand, they have been steadily building up a head of steam, while their ‘first-choice’ side has generally performed with aplomb.
In particular, the Lions have reaped reward through some impressive physicality up front, but it has especially been the accuracy and ferocity of their linespeed on defence that has caught the eye.
In this regard, it’s the speed of Smith's passing game that will not only look to stretch the Lions' defence, but provide Barrett with that extra split-second to make a decision, while the accuracy of the halfback's box kicking will be crucial to the aerial battle.
Barrett remains in a class of his own when it comes to not only reading a game situation, but executing the necessary tactics to nullify what an opponent presents on match day – whether it be feeding possession to the hard-running Sonny Bill Williams, or dinking the ball in behind the defence, or out wide to his wingers.
When it comes to this, look out for athletic young winger Rieko Ioane, who has been preferred to Julian Savea, partly due to his electric pace, while the Lions have also sprung somewhat of a surprise by selecting Elliot Daly ahead of George North on their left wing.
The Lions have backed in-form fullback Liam Williams in a selection that points to their appreciation for the counter-attack, but essentially this is going to be a case of the visitors looking to establish ascendancy up front, while aiming to frustrate the All Blacks through sturdy defence.
Ultimately, though, the All Blacks will know exactly what to expect, and should have the ability to weather an early storm before finishing with a flourish to claim a widely-expected victory.
As it is, the All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park since 1994, and should extend that remarkable record with a performance that may rely more on tactical nous than attacking flair.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 George Kruis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Leigh Halfpenny.
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