24 Jun 2017

Who will take out the first test?

4:57 pm on 24 June 2017

The RNZ sports team ponders a few posers ahead of the first test between the British and Irish Lions and the All Blacks in Auckland.

Lions' Sean O'Brien is chased by Damian McKenzie.

The Lions' Sean O'Brien is chased by Damian McKenzie. Photo: PhotoSport

Can the Lions win?

Despite everything suggesting otherwise. Yes. However there are few riders.

If it's wet it will suit the Lions. Rain will only reinforce the need to keep things tight.

It will also slow the game down again suiting the tourists. The first test will also be the Lions best chance of toppling the All Blacks.

They've had three weeks together and five games to work on combinations.

The All Blacks have had just the one outing against Samoa. While they looked slick and their combinations went well the Lions are a different proposition.

How do the All Blacks break down the Lions rush defence?

This should be one of the most engaging battles of the night. A true contrast of ethos.

The All Blacks' high tempo, high intensity rugby, versus the Lions suffocating ruck and maul and kick chase.

A fight between the light of running rugby and the dark of forward-dominated dourness.

But which will be more effective?

Set piece dominance will go a long way to winning this test, and if the All Blacks can only match the Lions for penalties, the hosts might be in for a historic night for all the wrong reasons.

However that's a big if. The All Blacks aren't the Crusaders, or the New Zealand Maori or the Chiefs.

Their forward pack won't be bullied by the Lions and the team's skills across positions should help the backline find gaps in that *cough* flat defence.

The All Blacks loose forwards will do a better job of cleaning out and providing quick ball. The All Blacks have two midfielders who can offload in the tackle, sometimes at will, and a creative first-five who utilizes a variety of unique skills, including cross kicks, to unlock a stubborn defence.

All Blacks fullback Ben Smith can expect to field plenty of high kicks in the first test in Lions.

All Blacks fullback Ben Smith can expect to field plenty of high kicks in the first test in Lions. Photo: Photosport

The high ball box kick the Lions employed against the Maori won't be as effective against Israel Dagg and Ben Smith, both masters under the high ball and both equipped with a booming boot.

The All Blacks' ability to ramp up another notch in the final 20 minutes, their general lift in accuracy and intensity from Super Rugby sides and the impact of their bench should prove the point of difference for the All Blacks this weekend.

Will the British and Irish Lions spring any surprises?

In a word no. Certainly don't expect the unexpected.

What we've seen so far is what we will get.

The never-ending forward grind followed by box kicks with a strong chase - when they've got it right, it's worked well for them.

When the Lions team was announced, All Black coach Steve Hansen made the comment that the Lions would talk about playing expansively but it would never eventuate. He's been bang on so far.

When expansive back play has threatened to break out the Lions quickly find themselves in uncharted territory.

Lions midfielder Ben Te'o

Lions midfielder Ben Te'o. Photo: Photosport

Case in point: Ben Te'o incisive break against the Maori All Blacks midway through the second half. A try was on for all money.

The Lions had the Maori defence at sixes and sevens. Quick recycling of the ball after Te'o was brought down short of the tryline would have had the Lions dotting down. But they managed to mangle it.

Slow to the breakdown and then lumbering passing along the line and the tourist went from being odds on to score to finding themselves almost back at half way. The All Blacks would have clinically finished.

Will Steve Hansen's rugby diplomacy survive the tour?

Does Steve Hansen have anything to prove? No!

His record speaks for itself and even a series loss wouldn't detract from that.... he'd be pissed, but it would drive him even more.

It's hard to argue with anything Hansen has done so far. Fans may question some of his selections but it seems to work every time and is eventually for the betterment of the All Blacks' game.

There is no doubt he likes to give a little dig to some of his opposition counterparts, but generally he's very supportive of all coaches.

He is the most experienced and successful internationals coaches in the world and because of that has the right to say what he feels.

All credit to the opposition, but this is Steve Hansen's place and we expect him to stand up for the home side.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

Steve Hansen. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Is this the opportunity for Sonny Bill Williams to shine?

He's won two World Cups and has always been a player picked in a squad, but has never really been seen as a starter in the big games.

Well, here's his chance.

He was the super sub for the last 3 games of the 2015 World Cup and after being injured in the Rio Olympics, this series gives him the chance to press his claim to secure his place in the midfield.

The 31 year old is regarded as the premier off-loader in the game and with the blanket defence the Lions have shown so far on tour, that part of his game will be a key to All Blacks success.

Williams has to be solid in attack and especially in defence if he's to make the spot his own.

Sonny Bill Williams can be a game breaker and the series against the Lions will go a long way to him extended is All Black career well past the 34 caps he already has.

It's time for him to form a long term partnership with Anton Leinert-Brown or Ryan Crotty in the All Black backline.

Vaea Fifita is hugged by Sonny Bill Williams after scoring a try.

Vaea Fifita is hugged by Sonny Bill Williams after scoring a try. Photo: Photosport

- RNZ

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