Lions 15 to face Maori will be near first-choice

ROTORUA, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions team selected for Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks will bear a close resemblance to the side that will take the field in the first Test.

The Maori All Blacks’ squad is packed with Super Rugby experience and New Zealand internationals and promises to be a team playing with passion, skill and width. Back in 2005 the Lions were given a wake-up call by the Maori side when they were beaten 18-13 in the game dubbed the unofficial fourth Test, and Warren Gatland’s class of 2017 are prepared for a similar challenge in Rotorua this weekend.

Saturday’s game is possibly the Lions’ final chance to give a potential first-choice XV a run out, given their game against the Chiefs on Tuesday is just four days before the first Test versus the All Blacks.

Neil Jenkins, the Lions’ skills coach, will be keeping a close eye on the All Blacks when they play Samoa on Friday evening and expects them to show some of their plans for the first Test under the Eden Park lights.

“From the All Blacks’ point of view, they want a hit out before they play us on Saturday so I’d like to think they will be pretty strong,” Jenkins said. “There might be one or two changes.

“The reality is that whatever side we pick on Saturday, it will be strong. It won’t be far off what will be playing a week on Saturday. There are couple of players here and there, but the team will be strong. It’s getting closer and the team have to play. It will be quite interesting on the weekend from both the ABs point of view and ours.”

The Lions have delayed naming their team by five hours but they expect to have both Jonathan Davies and Ross Moriarty back in contention. Davies suffered a head knock in their win over the Crusaders last weekend while Moriarty has been sidelined since their tour opener with back problems.

Courtney Lawes, who was forced off in the first half of their defeat to the Highlanders on Tuesday, is not expected to be fit as he will still be going through the return-to-play-protocols.

Gatland may also give a run out to tour captain Sam Warburton against the Maori after he played 68 minutes against the Highlanders on Tuesday. “For Sam it’s just about keeping getting game time if he can,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be on the weekend, but it was a big improvement from him, and the more game time he plays the better he’s going to be.

“Sam’s a top-end player, a quality, world-class seven, but again it’s the same as anything, you need to be playing to keep getting yourself back up to the levels that you need to.

“Warby would be the first to be admitting that, there’s no doubting that, but he had a much, much better game last night and he’ll keep improving, there’s no doubt.”

Saturday offers the Lions a chance to make amends for their defeat against the Highlanders on Tuesday. With the start to the Test series just over a week away, they need to build some momentum with the All Blacks lying in wait.

“This is easily the toughest Lions tour there’s ever been,” Jenkins said. “It’s not three Test matches, it’s pretty much ten Test matches, this is how hard it is.

“We know it’s going to be incredibly tough on Saturday, we just need to perform for longer. We need to replicate a bit what we did against the Crusaders.

“If we can bring the clinical side to things as well we can certainly have a good chance on Saturday. It’s a big game for us.”