British and Irish Lions Delicately Poised Ahead of Crucial Maori All Black Clash

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Injury Update: Owen Farrell of the British and Irish Lions is out due to a quad strain.

ROTORUA, NZ – The British and Irish Lions have named what looks to be close to a test side for this Saturday’s pivotal match against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua.  The tour is at a potential inflection point after the Lions remedied a slow start with an important win against the Crusaders, only to have that momentum derailed in Tuesday’s close loss to the Highlanders.  They will now face their toughest opposition outside of the tests in a Maori side featuring 43-time capped All Black Liam Messam in the back row and World Cup winning winger Nehe Milner-Skudder who features in a potent backline alongside fly half Damien McKenzie, Charlie Ngati and winger Reiko Ioane, who has already experienced success against the Lions on this tour, scoring a try in the Blues’ victory on 7th June.

Nehe Milner-Skudder, seen here scoring for the All Blacks... now facing Lions

Nehe Milner-Skudder, seen here scoring for the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup final, starts on the wing for the Maori against the Lions on Saturday. Photo cred: dailymail.com

Lions head coach Warren Gatland will field a side which looks to be very close to a test-ready team, with the impressive English pair George Kruis and Maro Itoje starting in the second row, while the centre pairing of Ben T’eo and Jonathan Davies reflects the physicality which Gatland seems to think can unlock the All Blacks.  Interestingly, tour captain Sam Warburton starts on the bench; Warburton has not been at his best this tour, however he did play 60 minutes against the Highlanders on Tuesday, making it hard to tell whether Gatland is seriously considering not starting him in the first test, or simply looking to give him some rest on what is an unrelenting tour.

Full back Leigh Halfpenny now appears to be in the driving seat for a test berth after injury against Canterbury ended Stuart Hogg’s tour.  Hogg was expected to be one of the stars of the 2017 Lions after being voted player of the tournament in both the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations, but an accidental collision with teammate Connor Murray left him with a fractured cheek bone which seems him return home early for treatment.  It is a desperately unfortunate end to the tour for Hogg, who has been one of the best players in the northern hemisphere over the past two years and had certainly been hoping to further his reputation on the world stage on this tour. The added Farrell injury certainly doesn’t help.

Stuart Hogg's tour is over after he fractured a cheek bone in a collision with his own team mate against the Crusaders.

Stuart Hogg’s tour is over after he fractured a cheek bone in a collision with his own team mate against the Crusaders. Photo cred: standard.co.uk

Victory in this game would give the Lions huge momentum heading into next Saturday’s first test, and would breed belief in the squad that winning the test series is a realistic possibility, while a loss would cast further doubt on the Lions’ chances, which are rated as slim at best.  Based on the games so far on this tour, Saturday’s encounter will be a massively physical clash, with the Lions looking to use ferocious line speed in defence to suffocate the Maori attack.  The Maori, however, are packed with world-class players and will provide an excellent litmus test of how far the Lions have progressed, and where they stand in relation to the number one team in the world.  Doubts have been raised as to the incisiveness of the Lion’s attack, and they will certainly need to score tries if they are to win on Saturday; attack coach Rob Howley’s work will be under the microscope as this fascinating tour rolls on.

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London-born Michael Halsey currently plays for New York Rugby Club, having previously played in England, Australia and Austria. Having always harboured dreams of being a sports journalist, joining the RWU team has finally given him a outlet through which to share his love of the game

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