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By Nick Mulvenney
AUCKLAND, June 23 (Reuters) - The British and Irish Lions are right where they want to be on the eve of the toughest assignment in rugby, a test match against the All Blacks at Eden Park, assistant coach Rob Howley said on Friday.
The Lions made a stuttering start to the tour but impressive wins over the Canterbury Crusaders and Maori All Blacks over the last two weeks have engendered a mood of cautious optimism in the red-shirted fans flooding into Auckland.
Steely defence, excellent game management and a rock solid set piece forged those victories but there are reservations in some quarters about the ability of the Lions to get across the try line.
Only four teams have beaten New Zealand since the 2011 World Cup and they have all had to score at least three tries to do so.
The Lions have managed only 11 in six tour matches so far, two of which were penalty tries and four coming in the win over the Waikato Chiefs on Tuesday, but backline coach Howley thought the signs were good.
“When you look at the schedule and the early weather conditions, and the shape in the last three games in particular, the number of line breaks we have made, we are where we want to be,” he told reporters.
”If you look at the times we have been held up over the line – I think it is eight.
“If we weren’t creating line breaks I would be a worried man sitting here, but we have created a lot of opportunities and the challenge against the world champions on Saturday is that when we create, we have to be clinical and ruthless.”
In a nod to the try scoring concern, head coach Warren Gatland selected Liam Williams, brilliant on the counter-attack against the Chiefs, ahead of fellow Welshman Leigh Halfpenny at fullback.
The centre partnership of Ben Te‘o and Jonathan Davies, however, looks designed to crash over the gainline and tie in New Zealand’s back row rather than open up the home defence.
Howley hinted on Friday that Irish flyhalf Johnny Sexton would come off the bench at some stage in the match, with starting number 10 Owen Farrell moving to inside centre to give the Lions two playmakers and offer more creative potential.
Other than that and his opening salvo on the linebreaks, though, Howley’s comments were more conservative in nature, emphasising the importance of winning the “key” aerial battle and defending well.
“We want to have a counter attack, but we need to have a measured, patient, decision-making process,” he said. “Defence wins games.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford; )