Lions reach tour milestone in New Zealand Maori match
From the start coach Warren Gatland identified Saturday's match against the New Zealand Maori as an important milestone on the British and Irish Lions rugby tour.
The match in Rotorua marks the midpoint of the tour - the beginning of its tougher second half - and Gatland indicated it would be against the Maori that he fielded his top-strength lineup, a week before the first test against New Zealand.
Not all has gone to plan. Instead, injuries and considerations of fitness and form appear to have prevented Gatland from naming his test XV and that might have an impact on the Lions' readiness for the three-test series which begins in Auckland on Saturday week.
Tour captain Sam Warburton has been picked on the bench as he struggles to regain full fitness and his best form after a recent knee injury. Flanker Peter O'Mahony has been handed the captaincy against the Maori in a form backrow which includes his Ireland teammate Sean O'Brien at openside and Wales' Taulupe Faletau at No. 8.
Warburton now seems in danger of surrendering the captaincy and being named on the bench for the first test; a possibility Gatland acknowledged at his team announcement when reflected in the four games so far.
''Sam's well aware of the competition that is there at the moment,'' Gatland said. ''He fully understands that that loose forward trio (O'Mahony, O'Brien and Faletau) went outstandingly well against the Crusaders.
''The challenge for them is to repeat it and if they do it again we'll make what we think is the right selection for the test match.''
Gatland said Warburton was a quality leader, ''but this tour isn't about Sam Warburton. It is about putting the squad first.''
The Lions had a second setback when England flyhalf Owen Farrell was ruled out of Saturday's match with a leg injury. The grade one quadriceps strain, which might take 10 days to heal, may also rule Farrell out of the first test.
The loss of Farrell appears likely to have a serious impact on Gatland's preferred test lineup. The Lions coach may have been considering playing Farrell at inside center, outside the Ireland halves pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, but that option seems to have been removed.
The team Gatland has selected to face the Maori - who beat the Lions when the teams last met in 2005 - is close to test strength but points to some uncertainty about the top team.
''There's a bit of juggling going on at the moment, a bit of mixing and matching,'' Gatland said. ''Even though it's a strong side, we've got to make sure we're not fully showing our hand.''
Gatland, a former All Blacks hooker, suggested the team was chosen with the intention of ''keeping the All Blacks guessing.'' But after winning two and losing two of their first four matches, playing mind games is not a luxury the Lions can afford.
The Lions need to produce their best performance of the tour, because a loss would send them into the test series with doubts over their combinations and game plans.
The Lions are likely to try against the Maori to replicate the performance they produced in beating the Crusaders 12-3 in their third tour match but that might also be a mistake.
They were justifiably proud to have beaten a team which has been unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season and to have held tryless a team averaging five tries per game.
But the Lions also went tryless against the Crusaders and cannot expect to beat the All Blacks on the strength of their defense alone.
The Maori play a running game by tradition - one that will be guided by flyhalf Damian McKenzie - and the Lions need to seize the opportunity to play in that spirit, not simply to neutralize their opponents through smothering defense.