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Lions Tour diary: The big questions, ones to watch and top tips for Highlanders


Lions Tour diary: The big questions, ones to watch and top tips for Highlanders

We pick out where to put your money and the players to keep an eye on as the tourists try to build on their new-found momentum...

Big questions

In defeating the strongest club side in New Zealand at the weekend, the Lions proved they are capable of competing with the All Blacks up front. The tight five that Steve Hansen names for the first Test in less than two weeks’ time will not look too dissimilar to the one that was fielded by the Crusaders on Saturday. And having won four scrum penalties, numerous free kicks and even stolen the odd line-out against them, the Lions can be confident of at least holding their own in the set piece – and perhaps even stealing a slight advantage.

The success of their defensive system – with a breathless line speed that kept the Crusaders try-less for the first time in over two seasons – also offers a template for success. The question now is how quickly the tourists can find their scoring touch.

A total of 32 line breaks have been made by the Lions in their three warm-up matches so far, but just two tries have been scored. Only once they have honed that clinical edge can talk of containing the All Blacks move on to how to conquer them.

Ones to watch

All eyes will be on the returning Sam Warburton on Tuesday, who has played just 66 minutes of rugby in the last two months. Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony were both excellent at the weekend, while there’s also an argument for accommodating Maro Itoje in the back row if necessary. The tour captain will therefore need to prove more than just his fitness if he is to lead the Lions out in Auckland.

Jonathan Davies’ precautionary substitution after just 28 minutes of his tour debut also means the outside centre spot is still up for grabs. Jonathan Joseph has scored more international tries than the Welshman in half as many Tests, but will need to remind the coaches of that happy knack in order to force his way in.

Stuart Hogg was another to be forced from the field prematurely on Saturday, though a nasty-looking facial injury means his absence is likely to be a bit longer-term. Should that prove the case, then it is not immediately obvious who would become the front runner for full-back.

Jared Payne would be an outside bet at this stage, but was excellent in that position against England in the Six Nations and was also part of the team that ended New Zealand’s winning run in November. Until Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams or Elliot Daly make a more convincing case, he shouldn’t be ruled out.

Top tips

Alternate handicap: Lions (-8.5) – 7/5

Even in a cagey game that was decided by the boot, the Lions did enough to overcome this handicap at the weekend. Despite fielding a weaker side, the step down in opposition means they ought to do so again quite comfortably.

Lions to win by 13+ points – 2/1

If you’re feeling adventurous, why not back the Lions to win by a wider margin. These tours are all about momentum and, having had the bar set so high by their team-mates on Saturday, it wouldn’t be out of the other half of the squad to make a statement of their own.  

Lions to win and both teams to score 20+ points – 9/4

The Lions are big favourites, but are still fielding the equivalent of a second string that conceded three tries against the Blues. The Highlanders, meanwhile, have failed to score 20 points just once in their last nine games, so it’s worth backing the tourists to prevail in an entertaining encounter.

Forward to score the first try – 15/8

The Highlanders strength lies in their pack – particularly with Aaron and Ben Smith missing from their back line – while the tourists will adopt a similar game plan to Saturday. With both sides likely to build a platform before throwing it wide, it makes sense to back a forward to touch grab the game’s first score.

Waisake Naholo to score 2 or more tries – 12/1

The All Blacks winger has six tries in his last seven games for the Highlanders, all of which have come in pairs. Given that when he scores he tends to do so more than once, this is the best value bet out there.

How is the Test team shaping up?

Very well indeed. Despite all hailing from different countries, the 8-9-10 axis of Toby Faletau, Connor Murray and Owen Farrell looks mightily impressive.

Mako Vunipola and Jamie George also impressed on their first starts in the front row and showed skills in the loose that their rivals simply don’t possess.

Warren Gatland is spoilt for choice in the second row, though Alun Wyn Jones’ claims will surely strengthen if Warburton is shown to be off the pace.

Jonathan Sexton was much-improved off the bench at the weekend, but Ben Teo’s power to break the line is more valuable than the Irishman’s ability to create holes for others to run through.

Anthony Watson’s performance off the bench also means he looks a guaranteed starter, though the rest of the back three is still wide open.

 

 

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Tom Clee
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