Five things we’ve learnt from the Highlanders’ 23-22 win over the British and Irish Lions

By Thomas Branston

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1 | The British and Irish Lions were succumbed to an agonisingly close defeat in Dunedin. The side learned some hard truths in their narrow defeat to the Highlanders, however there were many positives to take from their improved performance.

The likes of Kyle Sinckler, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Joseph and Tommy Seymour all had stand-out performances in the red jersey. The set-piece was improved but it was at the breakdown where this side fell short of success as they threw away a nine-point lead.

2 | A huge number of missed tackles played its part in an open attacking game on Tuesday. The Lions lack of defensive structure fed the brilliance of the Highlanders and allowed them to play a Super Rugby style of game.

A theme that has followed the British and Irish Lions throughout their tour so far has been their lack of discipline. In key moments against the Super Rugby outfit handed Lima Sopoaga and Marty Banks easy penalties, which ultimately won the game for the hosts.

Against the Crusaders on Saturday, the Lions had produced a sensational defensive lock-out, but in this match-up they reverted to the frequent lapses of concentration which undermined their efforts in last week’s defeat by the Blues.

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3 | Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo proved just how difficult the test series is going to be with the two individuals being selected in Steve Hansen’s 33-man squad to face the Lions. Although Malakai Fekitoa missed the cut, the outside centre showed his brilliance through the encounter and posed very dangerous to the Lions defence.

Sopoaga was crucial in the dynamics of the squad when attacking, the fly-half was at the centre of everything constructive the Highlanders did. Whilst Naholo was at his prolific best, scoring a try and knocking Courtney Lawes out for the count. The powerful winger has shown Warren Gatland that he is not to be messed with when the Lions come to face him in an All Blacks jersey.

4 | The British and Irish Lions injury count is mounting up, Courtney Lawes left the field of play with suspected concussion after his collision with Naholo before the powerful winger got through three Lions defenders including Lawes to score during the first-half.

Stuart Hogg was also confirmed before the game with the Highlanders that he would take no further part of the tour after his accident clash with Conor Murray against the Crusaders a few days ago in Christchurch.

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5 | Kyle Sinckler is making steady progress and is showing signs of a prop that could be in line for a place in the match day 23 for the tests against New Zealand.

The 24-year-old made several breaks and ball carries during a physical game in Dunedin and with his continued performances, he will surely be on Gatland’s shortlist with at least one game left for him to audition in.

Highlanders vs the British and Irish Lions: All you need to know

By Thomas Branston

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The British and Irish Lions travel to Dunedin to face the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Tuesday.

Warren Gatland’s Lions returned to winning ways against the unbeaten Super Rugby outfit BNZ Crusaders after suffering a surprise defeat to the Blues in Auckland last week.

After an improved performance with Gatland naming his strongest side yet, the British and Irish Lions are in search of a second consecutive win.

The Highlanders have seven players unavailable due to New Zealand and Maori All Blacks commitments, Liam Coltman, Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo have all been included in the starting XV.

Tony Brown’s side are ranked fourth out of the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises in this year’s tournament but the 2015 champions have won 10 of their 14 matches and are assured of a playoff place.

The forwards are a strong suit for the Highlanders so the Lions can expect a tough set piece challenge, which Gatland’s side arguably haven’t faced yet.

Brown names a virtually unchanged starting pack from the side that were edged 25-22 by the Crusaders in their last Super Rugby match with only Jackson Hemopo and Dillon Hunt added.

Teihorangi Walden gets a rare start with Richard Buckman shifting to full-back and Sopoaga will start at fly-half which moves Marty Banks to the bench and sees Kayne Hammington make just only his second start of the season at scrum-half.

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Sam Warburton returns to the starting XV and will captain the side as Gatland again rings the changes.

Joe Marler, Rory Best and Kyle Sinckler return to the front row after the defeat against the Blues and will have a tough challenge against a strong Highlander front row.

Courtney Lawes partners up with Iain Henderson with a back line which will see James Haskell, who will face his former club, CJ Stander and Warburton complete the forward pack.

Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar make up a Welsh partnership at halfback with Webb looking to match the performance of Conor Murray against the Crusaders.

Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph partner the midfield and will need to be creative against Teihorangi Walden and Malakai Fekitoa.

Tommy Seymour, Jared Payne and Jack Nowell make up the back three with Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Greig Laidlaw, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly make the bench.


Highlanders side to face the British and Irish Lions |

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The British and Irish Lions side to face the Highlanders | 

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Crusaders danger men the British and Irish Lions need to watch out for

By Thomas Branston

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BNZ Crusaders Head Coach Scott Robertson has named a strong side to face the British and Irish Lions at the AMI Stadium on Saturday.

The Crusaders have a few familiar faces starting the match with the likes of captain Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Israel Dagg but Robertson has also experimented by adding in some talented young players into the ranks with a particularly impressive backline.

Not to mention last seasons Crusaders skipper Kieran Read who misses out on the tie with a finger injury, but the All Blacks captain should be back in time to face the Lions in the test match series.

Going on previous performances, the Lions will have their work cut out as they will have to produce some creative rugby to breakdown play and score points, the Crusaders have a very talented side so consistency and discipline will be key.

I look into some familiar faces and some names you might want to look out for in tomorrow’s matchup in Christchurch.


Sam Whitelock

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A born leader and an influential part of the All Blacks squad, winning the tournament on two occasions in 2011 and 2015.

Sam Whitelock was named captain at the beginning of the 2017 campaign, replacing current All Blacks skipper Kieran Read and the powerful lock will play an influential part in the success of the hosts on the day.

The 28-year-old will battle it out at the set-piece with Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones and Saracens’ George Kruis in what should be an epic battle.

Capped 84 times with the All Black Whitelock is dangerous at the breakdown, don’t be surprised if you see the 6 foot 8 inches lock turning over ball and crashing into anyone who steps in his path.


Israel Dagg

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A versatile, agile back at heart, Dagg was part of the All Blacks 2011 squad that beat France to lift the famous Webb Ellis Cup.

Naturally positioned at full-back, Israel Dagg has made 61 appearances for New Zealand and has recently been called up to the 33-man squad to face the Lions in the test series.

The 29-year-old has plenty of pace and an eye for a gap to breach, not to add he has an incredible kick in him.

Dagg will be the most experienced player in the Crusaders back three and faces the oncoming challenges of Stuart Hogg, George North and Liam Williams.


Owen Franks

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Owen Franks is considered to be one of, if not the best tighthead prop in the world at the moment.

He is an experienced, dual World Cup winner and has 90 All Black caps to his name.

The 29-year-old is one to watch out for, strong on the ball, masterful in the set-piece and he is able to secure the ball in difficult positions.

Plying his trade for the Crusaders since 2009, Franks has raked up 123 appearances for the Christchurch based club and his experience will be key if the hosts are to beat the Lions.

Franks will partner up with fellow All Black internationals Codie Taylor and Joe Moody in a very strong front row and they will face up against Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong in what promises to be an explosive encounter come scrum-time.


Jack Goodhue

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Jack Goodhue (right)

Jack Goodhue is an upcoming talented outside centre with ample of speed, agility and balance which has allowed him to break into the Crusaders starting XV this season.

Although he has only made three appearances for the Crusaders, after a injury ridden year in 2016 Goodhue has been highly impressive in his play which has impressed Head Coach Robertson.

The 21-year-old inside centre won World Rugby Under 20 Championships in 2015 and has since developed his game after his knee injuries.

Goodhue will partner up with David Havili in midfield, making the pair very unexperienced compared to the Lions pairing with Warren Gatland  opting for Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies.

Expect a physical battle from the midfield quartet with both sets of players contrasting their focusses on powerful ball carrying opposed to offloading quick-ball play.


Richie Mo’unga –

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Richie Mo’unga is a young, talented fly-half with a powerful yet accurate cannon of a right foot.

The 23-year-old has made 25 appearances for the Crusaders since 2016 and has scored a total of 281 points in his time in the red and black jersey.

Mo’unga debuted on 27 February 2016 at home against the Chiefs and went on to start all 16 matches during a season and he was also a member of the New Zealand Under-20 side that finished in 3rd at the 2014 IRB Junior World Championship in France where he scored a total of 29 points in 5 games.

Since then the talented fly-half has found himself a regular in the Crusaders 10 shirt and he will look to rally up as many points as he can against the lions on Saturday.

Mo’unga will come up against Owen Farrell at fly-half and it will be interesting to see who will get the upper-hand.


George Bridge

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George Bridge is a promising prospect for the Crusaders and the speedy wing has impressed scoring eight tries in his eight appearances this season trailing Vince Aso (10) and Ngani Laumape (9) for tries scored during the 2017 season.

The 22-year-old has plenty of speed and his agility and footwork allow him to beat defenders in almost impossible positions.

Bridge was part of the side that won the World Rugby Under 20 Championships in 2015 where he made two appearances and scored one try.

After an impressive season so far Bridge will certainly be a danger man for the lions to deal with and the young winger will be coming up against Welsh pair Liam Williams and George North.  


 

BNZ Crusaders vs the British and Irish Lions: Everything you need to know

By Thomas Branston

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Israel Dagg named in starting XV to face the Lions.

The British and Irish Lions travel to Christchurch to face the BNZ Crusaders at the AMI Stadium on Saturday as they look to bounce back from their recent defeat to the Blues in Auckland.

Warren Gatland has named his squad ahead of the tie and Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones will captain the side that includes Owen Farrell and George North, who will make their first starts of this tour.

The hosts will make history on Saturday when they will face up against the Lions for the first time.

BNZ Crusaders Head Coach Scott Robertson has named a strong side which includes nine All Blacks that have been named in Steve Hansen’s 33-man squad set to face the Lions in the test series.

The squad also includes full-back Israel Dagg who will be a familiar face to the Lions and a backline brimming with the exciting young Super Rugby talent.

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Alun Wyn Jones will lead the Lions out in Christchurch on Saturday. 

Gatland has rung the changes again for the third game of the tour seeing the starting pack being replaced from the Blues defeat. England and Saracens pair Mako Vunipola and Jamie George come into the front row with Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong.

Alun Wyn Jones will lead the side and will partner up with George Kruis whilst Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien will be either side of Taulupe Faletau  in the back row.

The backline has also seen everyone replaced from the last game with a new halfback partnership in Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.

Worcester’s Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies will pair up in midfield with the backline being made up of Liam Williams who was shown a yellow card against the Blues, George North and Stuart Hogg.

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BNZ Crusaders | 15. Israel Dagg 14. Seta Tamanivalu, 13. Jack Goodhue, 12. David Havili, 11. George Bridge, 10. Richie Mo’ung, 9. Bryn Hall; 1. Joe Moody, 2. Codie Taylor, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock (C), 6. Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 7. Matt Todd (VC), 8. Jordan Taufua

Replacements | 16. Ben Funnell, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Michael Alaalatoa, 19. Quinten Strange, 20. Jed Brown, 21. Mitchell Drummond, 22. Mitchell Hunt, 23. Tim Bateman


British and Irish Lions | 15. Stuart Hogg, 14. George North, 13.  Jonathan Davies, 12. Ben Te’o, 11. Liam Williams, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Conor Murray; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Jamie George, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Alun Wyn Jones (C), 5. George Kruis, 6. Peter O’Mahony, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Taulupe Faletau

Replacements |16. Ken Owens, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Maro Itoje, 20. CJ Stander, 21. Rhys Webb, 22. Johnny Sexton, 23. Anthony Watson


 

The Blues vs the British and Irish Lions: Everything YOU need to know about the Lions

By Thomas Branston

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Wales prop Ken Owens returns from injury to Captain the British and Irish Lions.

The British and Irish Lions will be captained by Wales international hooker Ken Owens as they prepare to face Super Rugby franchise the Blues at Eden Park, Auckland on Wednesday.

The Scarlets hooker recovered from an ankle injury sustained towards the end of the season and returns to make his Lions debut after almost jeopardising his place on the tour of New Zealand.

Warren Gatland has named 15 changes including 11 Lions debutants for their clash against the Auckland based side and Owens is joined by four of his fellow internationals in the squad with Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny all starting and Liam Williams named on the bench.

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Dan Biggar replaces Jonny Sexton at fly-half to make his Lions debut.

The front row is made up of Wales hooker Ken Owens, Jack McGrath and Dan Cole with Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje partnering at second-row.

The back row is lined up with Wasps flanker James Haskell, Justin Tipuric and Munster forward CJ Stander starting at no. 8.

Its an all Welsh pairing at half-back with Rhys Webb starting at scrum-half and Dan Biggar at fly-half, while Ireland duo Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are paired together in midfield.

Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny starts at full-back and is joined by England’s Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly who competed against each other in the Aviva Premiership final just two weeks ago.

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Bath Wing Anthony Watson scored a crucial try in the win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.

The New Zealand Provincial Barbarians gave the Lions a stern test in their first game of the tour with the visitors edging a close tie, a 13-7 victory after Anthony Watson spared their blushes.

The front row that started against the Provincial Barbarians (Kyle Sinckler, Rory Best and Joe Marler) are all named on the bench, as well as fly-half Johnny Sexton and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and Ireland back row Peter O’Mahony has been added to the squad.


The British and Irish Lions to face the Blues | 15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Jack Nowell, 13. Jared Payne, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Elliot Daly, 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Rhys Webb; 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Ken Owens (c), 3. Dan Cole, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Courtney Lawes, 6. James Haskell, 7. Justin Tipuric, 8. CJ Stander.

Replacements | 16. Rory Best, 17. Joe Marler, 18. Kyle Sinckler, 19. Iain Henderson, 20. Peter O’Mahony, 21. Greig Laidlaw, 22. Johnny Sexton, 23. Liam Williams.


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