The ‘fourth Test’ for the British and Irish Lions will give Warren Gatland’s Test side a tough challenge when they face the Maori All Blacks.
Head coach Colin Cooper has a wealth of riches to work with, in the backs especially, for a fixture which is as highly regarded as they come in for the Maori All Blacks.
However, just because the fixture is of monumental importance does not mean the home side will be adopting a conservative game-plan. The selection of Damian McKenzie sends a message that the Maori All Blacks will be looking to run anything and everything.
Why wouldn’t they with a back three of James Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Rieko Ioane at their disposal out wide too. That trio have established themselves as some of the greatest attacking threats in Super Rugby over the last two to three years.
On top of that there are players in this Maori All Blacks side no doubt hugely disappointed to have missed out on the New Zealand squad for the Test series – McKenzie and flanker Elliot Dixon in particular.
Getting a crack at the Lions, according to McKenzie at least, will make up somewhat for that disappointment, as he told Stuff.
“[In 2005] I was 10, I think. I was back home in Southland, I actually remember they played the Stags, and I fondly remember my brother [Marty McKenzie] was actually ball boy for that game. I was just a kid watching in the crowd. So to be a part of something so special, I’m pretty lucky.”
When it comes to a special backline the Crusaders were in a similar position last Saturday, the key absence of Ryan Crotty aside, when the Lions gained dominance upfront and from there won the contest.
That puts plenty of pressure on the Maori All Blacks tight five to step and match a pack full of confidence coming off ending the Crusaders’ unbeaten year on their own turf.
A week on the Lions will hoping to pull off a similar act of containment on those potent Maori All Blacks threat. With four Saracens in the Lions tight five blended with the Irish trio of Tagh Furlong, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien plus the in-form Taulupe Faletau.
Go well again in Rotorua and the Test spot is Jamie George’s to own, a remarkable turnaround for a player who has never started for England. Vunipola and Jack McGrath could well swap roles comes the Test series given Vunipola’s potential impact off the bench, and the same could be said for Maro Itoje.
Had Alun Wyn Jones not been called upon earlier than expected against the Highlanders, going on to play 53 minutes on Tuesday after 80 three days beforehand against the Crusaders, then another outing for the Welsh-Anglo combo of himself and George Kruis might have been selected again.
Gatland however must be tempted to stick with the familiarity of Itoje and Kruis at Saracens, having won two Premiership titles (Itoje started at six in the 2015 win over Bath) and two Champions Cups together in recent times.
There is no chance to see Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in action together before the Test series, after Farrell’s withdrawal having strained his quad in training on Thursday, and with Stuart Hogg now off tour, Leigh Halfpenny needs an exceptional game.
Can this team be creative enough to score tries with Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies together again in midfield? That may well be the main point of scrutiny after the final whistle in Rotorua, win or lose for the Lions.
OUR VIRTUAL LOOK !
Maori All Blacks: 15 James Lowe, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Leighton Price, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Rob Thompson
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 George North, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Elliot Daly
Date: Saturday, June 17
Venue: International Stadium, Rotorua
Kick-Off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Romain Poite (France)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)