At long last we enter the business end of the Lions tour of New Zealand.
Occasionally the buildup has seemed interminable, with a series of dour, rainy matches played out amidst a recent barrage of equally uninspiring pseudo mind-games from the teams’ respective head coaches. If there are two less colourful managerial figureheads in international rugby, you’d be doing well to find them.
Of course, churning out sound-bites and pithy quotes are not part of the job description for Warren Gatland or Steve Hansen, both of whom have mostly preferred to focus on preparing their teams rather than engaging in spurious media one-upmanship. Which hasn’t exactly made for a thrilling sideshow, but means we can probably expect to see a contest between a pair of well-organised, well-drilled sides in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The All Blacks are heavy favourites, and it’s not hard to see why.
We know they are the best team in the world, and have been for quite some time, but they also boast home advantage and don’t suffer the hindrance of being thrown together at short notice like the Lions. For many, the only real question is how much they win by.
They possess one of the most lethal backlines imaginable, and have such strength-in-depth that they can afford to leave out Julian Savea for the first test. Savea is considered by many to be the finest winger around, and yet Hansen has chosen to replace him with the largely untested Rieko Ioane.
The Blues bruiser is, you will be shocked to discover, a gifted athlete. But he also has the quick hands and innate tactical awareness of a truly top-class player.
His skills and rugby brain complement his imposing physique, and at first glance there doesn’t seem to be a weakness in his game.
Often played at outside-centre for his provincial side, Ioane is set to start on the wing for the national team, and could cause chaos on the Lions flanks. Given the expected dominance of the All Blacks in the middle of the park, it looks likely that space will open up out wide on a regular basis, and Ioane will seek to exploit that. What chances New Zealand create, he will finish.
It’s not unrealistic to see him scoring more than one try, particularly if he’s still on the pitch during the latter stages of the match. Rieko can wreak havoc, and as a result you wouldn’t be going far wrong to back him at 21/10 to score a try any time and New Zealand to win.