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Warburton back as Lions seek to maintain momentum

The British and Irish Lions next face the Highlanders. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Roar Guru
11th June, 2017
5

The British and Irish Lions got their tour of New Zealand back on track with an intense 12-3 victory over the Crusaders, arguably the strongest Kiwi Super Rugby outfit.

While their attack was still some way short of the mark – they failed to cross the try line – coach Warren Gatland would have been pleased with the intensity of their defensive effort and the accurate kicking of halves Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.

But there is no time to rest, as the next leg of this whirlwind tour takes them to Dunedin to play the Highlanders, the first Super Rugby opposition they will face who will not have All Blacks in the side.

That said, their side will contain some really talented players, like Marty Banks and Malakai Fekitoa, and the Lions will be hoping to maintain the momentum they so desperately need and found in Christchurch as the tour gets into its business end.

Captain Sam Warburton is a man under pressure as he seeks to build match fitness while also earning a spot in the test side on merit, as the performances of the likes of Sean O’Brien have seen calls for Warburton to not get a start in the first test in two weeks time. The Welsh captain makes his first return to the run-on side since the unconvincing opening match of the tour against the Provincial Barbarians.

Partnering Warburton in the back-row are James Haskell and CJ Stander. Haskell, who played one season of Super Rugby with the Highlanders back in 2012, got 50-odd minutes against the Blues last week, while Stander has been involved in each of the last two games. They will look to provide proper go-forward for the Lions with powerful carries.

Gatland has stuck to a few front-row combinations in the three matches on tour, and there is no chopping and changing happening any time soon as the English duo of Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler join Irish hooker Rory Best. This is the front row that started the match against the Barbarians and were on the bench against the Blues. ‘Fly-half killer’ Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson start in the second row.

(Image: AAP Image/Ross Setford)

In the back the Welsh combination of Rhys Webb, who did not come off the bench in Christchurch, and Dan Biggar will look to stake their claim to a spot in the test side. Biggar got 35 minutes against the Blues before being taken off due to a head knock, while Webb played for nearly the entirety of that match without being too impressive.

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The pair complements each other well, though, and were also part of the Welsh touring party to New Zealand in 2016, although their last outing at Forsyth Barr Stadium was a forgettable 46-6 thrashing by the All Blacks.

Gatland will hope the halves will be able to orchestrate a better attacking performance from the backs – the Lions have scored only two tries in three matches so far. He has gone for the power of Robbie Henshaw at inside centre coupled with the quick feet of Jonathan Joseph outside him, while the back three is made of Tommy Seymour, Jack Nowell and Kiwi lad Jared Payne, who becomes the third fullback of the tour.

The bench sees Ken Owens, Jack McGrath and Dan Cole all keep their bench spot from the Crusaders match, with another former Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones and compatriot Justin Tipuric rounding off the replacement forwards.

Greig Laidlaw will be keen to get a few minutes off the bench to impress Gatland, while Owen Farrell may get another outing to cement his spot as a shoe-in for the starting berth in Auckland in two weeks. Elliot Daly is the No. 23.

Prediction: The Lions to get another hard fought but slightly more comfortable victory. No more than three tries will be scored.

British and Irish Lions squad
15. Jared Payne
14. Jack Nowell
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Tommy Seymour
10. Dan Biggar
9. Rhys Webb

1. Joe Marler
2. Rory Best
3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Courtney Lawes
5. Iain Henderson
6. James Haskell
7. Sam Warburton (captain)
8. CJ Stander

Replacements
16. Ken Owens
17. Jack McGrath
18. Dan Cole
19. Alun Wyn Jones
20. Justin Tipuric
21. Greig Laidlaw
22. Owen Farrell
23. Elliot Daly

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Players to look out for are Sam Warburton, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Jared Payne.

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