AUCKLAND — New Zealand. All Blacks skipper Kieran Read has predicted an “enthralling contest” when his side meet the British & Irish Lions in the first Test at Eden Park on Saturday night.
The world champions completed their preparations with the captain’s run on Friday afternoon as the sun did its best to peek through on a gloomy Auckland day. Naturally, the attention quickly turned to Read’s thumb injury and whether the All Blacks skipper had been able to get through the past fortnight’s training ahead of what is the most-anticipated rugby match of 2017.
“Probably the last week and a half, yeah, since we got into camp last week, I’ve been essentially pretty good since we’ve come back in,” Read said following Friday’s captain’s run. “So this week, [I] haven’t been able to worry about the thumb, it’s just been a normal Test prep week. So I’ve been all good to go.”
While the Lions have dropped two games on tour, their performances in the previous two Saturday fixtures – against the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks – have both yielded impressive victories.
Lions coach Warren Gatland made more changes to his starting side than was expected following last week’s 32-10 win over the Maori, with Elliot Daly and Liam Williams getting the nod after fine performances in the 34-6 rout of the Chiefs on Tuesday.
Read is in little doubt as to the quality of opposition that awaits the All Blacks, particularly with tour captain Sam Warburton to come off the bench.
“I guess that he’s named captain it’s probably a little bit of a surprise,” Read said of Warburton’s benching. “But tough, I guess, from his perspective, with the injuries he was in doubt to get back and they’ve got great players across their team. He’ll come on, certainly, and make an impact.
“The guys who are [going to] start for them are the guys who’ve probably played the best for the Lions all tour. So they’ve picked a form team, that’s what we’ve probably got to expect; a team that’s at the top of their powers and coming at us.”
The Lions’ task is made even tougher by the fact they must beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, a venue where the two-time reigning world champions have not been defeated since 1994. The tourists, meanwhile, have just one win over the All Blacks at Eden Park in nine attempts, a victory that came way back in 1959.
Asked to describe what the venue meant to the All Blacks, Read offered a simple answer.
“Essentially…it’s our home,” he said. “We play across all the venues in New Zealand but this is the one that we really feel at home at. We’ve won World Cups here, played some big games and, yeah, we get great support.
‘It doesn’t necessarily mean anything for us heading into tomorrow, but it’s certainly [somewhere] that we enjoy coming to and enjoy playing in front of a great crowd.”