May 29 (Reuters) - Itinerary of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand:
The invitational side is made up mostly of players from New Zealand’s semi-professional provincial championship, although four members of the pack and flyhalf Bryn Gatland, the son of Lions coach Warren, have Super Rugby experience.
The elder Gatland is likely to be without several players who will arrive late due to club commitments.
The Blues will provide the first real test for the tourists with Tana Umaga, captain of the side that swept the 2005 series, allowed to select his All Blacks.
The focus is likely to be on whether loose forward enforcer Jerome Kaino has recovered from a knee surgery in April, while his team mates will also have travelled back from Samoa after facing the Queensland Reds in Apia on June 2.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen names his test squad the following day.
The last match where the Lions will face any All Blacks before the tests. The seven-times champion Crusaders have arguably the best pack in Super Rugby and have re-discovered the ability to score tries through their backs, with flyhalf Richie Mo‘unga developing into a player worthy of being in the national conversation.
Gatland is likely to have settled on the majority of his combinations for the first test, with many of those players expected to be rested for this match. The Highlanders could be without up to six players on All Blacks duty but have spent much of the Super Rugby season without one or the other anyway due to a lengthy injury list. They counter-attack brilliantly and rely on a tough defence around a no-nonsense pack.
Gatland is expected to field as close to his first test side as possible in a game considered the unofficial fourth test of the tour. The Maori team have an impressive record against international sides and will be determined to continue that. The Maori beat the Lions 19-13 in a physical encounter in Hamilton in 2005 to hand the tourists their only loss outside the tests.
A homecoming for Gatland, who played 140 games for Waikato and scored a try in their 38-10 victory over the 1993 tourists. The Chiefs have not produced the free-flowing rugby they have been known for this season, with their forwards often proving the difference. Dave Rennie’s side, without their All Blacks, thrashed Wales 40-7 last year and will no doubt be just as motivated against the Lions’ dirt-trackers.
The match which Gatland is no doubt targeting to catch the All Blacks at their most vulnerable, with the hosts typically slow starters to their international season as the players gel combinations and jettison five different styles of play from Super Rugby. Hansen’s side, however, learned from the 2005 tour where they played Fiji beforehand and face Samoa on June 16 in an attempt to shake off the rust. The All Blacks are unbeaten at Eden Park since 1994, a run of 36 victories with one draw.
While Chris Boyd’s side will be without their All Blacks, the depth he has built at the 2016 champions means they should barely miss a step against what should essentially be midweek Lions side. The Hurricanes have looked unbeatable at times this season, but failed to put in a full 80-minute performance.
Players on the All Blacks fringes like centre Ngani Laumape, loose forward Brad Shields and fullback Jordie Barrett should have an opportunity to push their case for higher honours later in the year if they have not made the June 8 squad.
The critical match of the series with either side capable of locking it up with a game to spare after the first test at Eden Park, which is likely to have resulted in a few casualties and changes in selection. The Lions have played just one previous test at Wellington Regional Stadium, and it was not auspicious.
In 2005, Dan Carter produced what was considered the most complete performance by a flyhalf as he scored 33 points in a 48-18 victory, which also sealed the series.
The series could be decided or still in the air if locked at 1-1 entering the finale at Eden Park. Of the nine previous Lions tests on the ground, the visitors have won just once, in 1959. They did, though, earn a 14-14 draw in 1971 which sealed their only series victory in New Zealand. (Compiled by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)