WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The British and Irish Lions go into Tuesday’s tour match against the Otago Highlanders keen to build on a morale-boosting victory over New Zealand’s strongest Super Rugby franchise but wary of yet another tricky obstacle in their journey towards the tests.
A slow start to the 10-match tour left many observers fearing the Lions would be swatted aside by the All Blacks when the first of three tests kicks off in Auckland on June 24 but Saturday’s display has somewhat changed that perception.
The Lions were brutally efficient in their work to nullify an unbeaten All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders side 12-3 in Christchurch and coach Warren Gatland will be looking for a similar performance against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Gatland would have been impressed by a majority of the players who overcame the Crusaders and has named a completely new starting 15 for Tuesday’s encounter as he works towards finalising his strongest lineup for the bigger tests to come.
Tour captain Sam Warburton has shaken off an ankle niggle to make just his second appearance in New Zealand and the Wales back rower is desperate to see the Lions build on the last result and keep progressing towards the tests.
“If we hadn’t have won it would not have been the end of the world, we are still building nicely, but it was really good that we did for momentum,” the 28-year-old told reporters.
”And now all the guys, down at the ground, we can’t wait to cheer them on, to clap them when they come back into the changing room and spend time together, it does feel like an achievement of the 41 (man squad).
”That is what special about Lions tours, and I can see the guys absolutely finish themselves to get that performance and we owe that back to them on Tuesday against the Highlanders.
“So I am expecting us to move on again and just keep nudging on each game now.”
Gatland’s men have three more outings before the first test and the coach has urged the players to make his job of selecting a squad for that encounter as difficult as possible.
“The players for the Highlanders game are well aware of the continuity and momentum that has been created from the Crusaders win, and want to continue that,” he said.
“And for them to go out and perform collectively and individually, the challenge is to put us under pressure as coaches for selection for Saturday and then ultimately for the first test.”
Looking at the opposition, the Highlanders may only be ranked fourth of the five New Zealand franchises in this year’s Super Rugby tournament but the 2015 champions have won 10 of their 14 matches and are assured of at least a playoff berth.
They will also be bolstered by the inclusion of three All Blacks with hooker Liam Coltman, flyhalf Lima Sopoaga and winger Waisake Naholo all included in coach Tony Brown’s side for the clash at the Otago Regional Stadium.
Writing by John O'Brien in Singapore; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly