Tuesday’s match between the Chiefs and British and Irish Lions in Waikato is likely to leave us wondering what might have been.
Why? Had the Chiefs been at full strength then the Lions’ final warm-up match before the Test series begins on the weekend would have had an enormously hard task.
Not to say the side selected by Dave Rennie lacks talent, far from it. But the absences stick out. Not necessarily of Test players like Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown, who were never going to feature.
For the Chiefs to be without James Lowe, Charlie Ngatai, Damian McKenzie and Tawera Kerr-Barlow is major blow, with Hika Elliot and Liam Messam limited to minutes off the bench.
That quartet were never allowed a chance to fire in Rotorua and based on the games against the Blues and Highlanders would have enjoyed more success against the Lions’ mid-week outfit.
The deciding factor in the Lions’ wins over the Crusaders and Maori All Blacks has been if the home side’s pack can live with what the Lions have to offer upfront in the set-piece.
Dominic Bird and Nepo Laulala are both All Blacks but with no Nathan Harris at hooker and Elliot on the bench this will be a big test for 22-year-old Liam Polwart at hooker for the Chiefs, to both hold his own at the scrum and keep the Chiefs lineout ticking over.
Mitch Brown, Lachlan Boshier and Tom Sanders are all versatile, powerful loose forwards tasked with containing a frustrated Lions trio of James Haskell, Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander, whose Test chances have faded.
More however has been discussed about the make-up of the Lions’ replacements than their starting XV. All six of Kristian Dacey, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Gareth Davies and Finn Russell, Saturday’s call-ups to the squad, are in the matchday 23 as planned.
Russell was so good in the win over the Wallabies that he has more than earned a run in the red shirt, and there is nothing wrong with Davies’ involvement either. The remaining quartet do not sit so well, but what a moment in their careers and a chance to silence the harsher doubters on social media.
In fact so many of this Lions side have points to prove. Liam Williams’ stint at full-back will be watch closely. The best of Jack Nowell, James Haskell and Dan Cole is yet to be seen in New Zealand.
Elliot Daly could be the solution in the 23 shirt for the Tests. Robbie Henshaw is more than capable of playing in the Tests, but trails Jonathan Davies. CJ Stander is due a monster game too.
The Chiefs fixture might not see either side at their strongest, but it doesn’t lack for intrigue.
Players to Watch
For Chiefs: Crucial to the Chiefs slowing the Lions down upfront will be Dominic Bird. Notably opting to re-sign with the Chiefs back in March despite substantial interest from elsewhere, Bird has been excellent alongside Brodie Retallick this year in Super Rugby and the 206cm lock can take the threat to Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes, who have had their impressive moments on tour.
For Lions: Concerns after the Highlanders game were that Courtney Lawes tour would be over just as he was starting to look like a Test option for Warren Gatland. Fortunately his time on the sidelines has been short, and Lawes has brought spades of physicality to the Lions’ efforts so far on tour. Expect more of the same.
Head-to-head: The two full-backs stick out. Shaun Stevenson, still just 20, has electric speed but there are few lighter backs in the Chiefs squad, raising the questions how he will fare one-on-one against some of the Lions defenders. Any gaps in the Lions defence however will be punished. As for Liam Williams, with Leigh Halfpenny reportedly undergoing the return to play protocols after the win over the Maori there is every chance that Williams could be in contention for the 15 shirt for the Tests, making this game an important audition.
Prediction: Expect plenty of wounded Lions to give their best performances of the tour as the Lions go back-to-back. Lions by seven.
Chiefs: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Stephen Donald (c), 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Liam Polwart, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliott, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Luteru Laulala, 23 Chase Tiatia
British and Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Kristian Dacey, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Alun Wyn Jones, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Finn Russell, 23 Tommy Seymour
Date: Tuesday, June 20
Venue: FMG Stadium, Waikato
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Romain Poite (France)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)