The talking is nearly over with, and the action ready to begin. On Saturday, the British and Irish Lions will begin their quest to win a test series in New Zealand for the first time in 43 years. So with that in mind here are just a few of the big individual match-ups that could be decisive in Auckland at the weekend.
Mako Vunipola v Owen Franks
The battle at the scrum is one of the intriguing sub-plots to this test series with the Lions enjoying plenty of success up-front on the tour so far. A major factor in the Lions success has been the form of Saracens Prop forward Vunipola, with the 26-year-old replicating the form that saw him win silverware with club and country last season. A dynamic ball-carrier who seems to be everywhere on the pitch, Vunipola’s expert handling skills set him aside from most other loose-heads in the game and he will be a key weapon for Gatland’s side. With 91 international caps to his name, Owen Franks has been the cornerstone of the All Blacks pack for the best part of a decade. Since making his test debut in 2009 Franks has been a near ever-present in New Zealand’s front row and with two World Cup winners’ medals to his name has been an integral part of his country’s recent success. A no-thrills tighthead who carries and tackles with real force, it is packing down in the scrum where the Crusaders No.3 is most at home with his robust strength and power coming to the fore. Vunipola may have addressed his weaknesses in the scrum over the last few years, but it still remains an area of worry for Gatland and Vunipola will need to be at his very best at scrum-time to cope with Franks.
George Kruis v Sam Whitelock
Saracens lock forward Kruis has looked back to his very best on this tour, despite missing most of last season with injury. A player who has grown into a hugely important figure for club and country, Kruis has played an integral role in this Lions tour so far and unsurprisingly has been given the responsibility of taking on the All Blacks. A nuts-and-bolts lock forward who does the basics very well it is his prowess at lineout time that marks him out. The fact that Gatland and his coaching staff chose Kruis to be the lineout caller ahead of three-times Lions tourist Alun Wyn-Jones in the recent win against the Crusaders, is a clear example of how much faith they have in his skillset. Facing him again on Saturday just as in the Crusaders game will be Sam Whitelock. Arguably the best line-out operator in the game, Whitelock plays a very similar type of game to Kruis and his ball-carrying, tackling and clearing out rucks often frees up the space for the All Blacks skilled backs to run in some eye-catching scores. As Crusaders captain Whitelock will probably still be smarting from the defeat in Christchurch a fortnight ago, especially as Kruis and the rest of the Lions pack dominated up front and Whitelock will be keen to avenge that defeat. Both players are likely to look to disrupt opposition line-out ball and whoever is most effective will give a good platform for their half-backs to perform.
Taulupe Faletau v Kieran Read
Unquestionably two of the best Number 8’s in world rugby, the clash between these two back-row forwards will be seismic. Whilst Lions fans were denied the opportunity to watch Faletau go head-to-head with cousin Billy Vunipola for the No.8 jersey by Vunipola ruling himself out of the tour with injury, that blow has been softened by the form of the Wales and Bath No.8. Faletau struggled with a few injuries last season that ultimately saw him sit on the replacements bench for most of the Six Nations, but he has been back to his very best of late both in defence and attack. All Blacks captain Kieran Read returns for the first test this weekend having missed the last 3 months through injury. He may be short on match-sharpness but the Crusaders player remains one of the best athletes in the game and his leadership skills will be vital for New Zealand. Two players with great handling skills and pace, expect them to be roaming the wide channels looking to exploit the opposition defence as well as tackling anything that moves in opposition colours.
Owen Farrell v Beauden Barrett
A mouth-watering match-up as the European Player of the Year meets the reigning World Player of the Year. Owen Farrell is no stranger to big-match occasions having won domestic and European titles with his club as well as a Six Nations Grand Slam with England. The Saracens man is equally comfortable playing at 10 or 12, and his game management and kicking accuracy mark him out as a world-class tactician. Facing him on Saturday though will be one of the most talented footballers to put on the famous black jersey. Hurricanes fly-half Barrett has excelled in the No.10 jersey ever since taking the reigns from the legendary Dan Carter following the 2015 World Cup. A silky runner of the ball with great vision, it is Barrett’s footballing ability which sets him apart from the rest with his cross-kicks being so accurate that it has effectively become a kick-pass. Farrell may not possess the same attacking skillset as Barrett but he is an excellent distributor of the ball and is a strong defender who will not be intimidated by the All Blacks physicality. Both hugely important to their respective teams’ causes.
Ben Te’o v Sonny Bill Williams
Two players who are no strangers to each other having been rivals in rugby league, the battle between the two centres is sure to be a physical one. New Zealand-born Te’o has enjoyed a rapid rise in international rugby having only made his England debut last year but the Worcester Warriors’ centre has become an important member of Eddie Jones’ squad. Used mostly as an impact player off the bench for England under Jones, Te’o may have only made one start at test level so far for England but he did enough to convince Lions coach Gatland that he could do a job this summer. Probably the most consistent performer on tour Te’o has been the front-runner for the No.12 jersey ever since the first game against the Barbarians and his ability to consistently get over the gain-line has been a big factor in him getting the nod for the test series. Coming up against Sonny Bill Williams however, the Lions centre will have to be at the very top of his game. Having enjoyed success in rugby union and league as well as boxing, Williams is quite clearly a special athlete. With two World Cup titles under his belt in just 34 test caps, the Auckland Blues centre has crammed much into what is a relatively short international career, and is sure to relish the opportunity of being first-choice centre for his country having played second-fiddle to others in the past. A hugely physical presence in midfield, Williams also possesses supreme handling skills with his expert offloading game being his most potent attacking weapon – something the Lions will know all about after facing him against the Blues. Having played at the highest level in both league and union, it is clear that Teo’o and Williams are highly intelligent sportsmen and they will need to be at their very best in attack and defence to stop each other.
Anthony Watson v Rieko Ioane
Two devastating runners ball in hand, the contest on the wing is sure to be an exciting one. On a tour which hasn’t gone to plan for a lot of the Lions wingers, Anthony Watson has been the most solid. The English winger had a lively game against the Barbarians where he scored the only try of the match, and delivered a convincing display of running rugby when replacing Stuart Hogg at full-back against the Crusaders. A good defender and an expert under the high ball, it is Watson’s finishing ability which is his strongest weapon. Averaging a try every two games in test rugby the 23-year-old is prolific in attack and Gatland will expect him to carry that try-scoring form into the test matches. Another young player with a promising future, Rieko Ioane has had some impact in his early career. Just twenty years of age the Blues winger will be the youngest player out on the pitch on Saturday, and has been the star performer in Super Rugby thrilling fans with his scorching pace and try-scoring feats. A player who only made his test debut last autumn, Ioane’s performance against the Lions for the Blues recently and particularly his tormenting of Lions winger Jack Nowell has caught the attention of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen who has seen enough to suggest Ioane can hold his own at this level.
Liam Williams v Ben Smith
Another tantalising match-up between two of the most entertaining players in the game. Warren Gatland’s decision to choose Williams ahead of Leigh Halfpenny at full-back has been a shock to many supporters, but following his best display of the tour so far wearing 15 against the Chiefs the clamour for his inclusion became too much to ignore. Despite being a regular on the wing for Wales for most of his test career, there is no doubt Williams’ best position is full-back. His counter-attacking game is up there with the best and when he isn’t wreaking havoc from the back of the field he is often creating tries for others. A key member of one of the best attacks in Europe last season with Pro12 champions Scarlets, Williams struggled early on in the tour playing on the wing but will cause the All Blacks a number of problems from full-back where he starred last year for Wales in New Zealand. Williams’ opposite number on Saturday though is unquestionably the best full-back in the game and one of the most intelligent also. All Blacks vice-captain Ben Smith is often the man who makes this New Zealand side tick in attack. Smith possesses an impressive strike-rate of 27 tries in 61 tests but this stat only tells half the story with the Highlanders full-back just as likely to be setting up a team-mate for a try as scoring himself. A gifted footballer, his knack of running with the ball in two hands makes him a difficult man to read in attack and his kicking game also comes in handy on the rare occasions when his side are under the cosh. A player who has struggled with injuries this term but as All Blacks vice-captain he is a hugely influential player for his country.