NEW ZEALAND SKIPPER Kieran Read has recovered from injury in time to lead the All Blacks against the British and Irish Lions in Saturday’s first Test [KO 8.35, Sky Sports 1].
The Crusaders back rower hasn’t played since breaking his thumb in a Super Rugby game against the Cheetahs on 30 April.
Read will win his 98th cap for the All Blacks when he runs out alongside a typically-formidable selection at Auckland’s Eden Park this weekend.
Devastating wingers Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo have failed to make head coach Steve Hansen’s match-day 23 however, with Israel Dagg and Blues youngster Rieko Ioane either side of Ben Smith in the back three.
Ioane, 20, who impressed for the Blues during their victory against the Lions, will earn his first start and just his third cap for New Zealand in what is otherwise a very experienced backline.
Ryan Crotty has also recovered from a rib complaint to take his place in Hansen’s midfield for the first of three Tests, alongside code-hopping superstar Sonny Bill Williams, which means Anton Lienert-Brown has to make do with a spot among the replacements despite impressing against Samoa last weekend.
Reigning World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett once again teams up with Aaron Smith in the halfbacks, despite speculation that the latter would lose his spot to TJ Perenara.
Read is partnered in the back row by Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino, with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock selected in the second row.
Owen Franks will earn his 92nd cap at tighthead prop, in a powerful front-row unit that also contains Codie Taylor and Joe Moody.
Regular hooker Dane Coles has failed to recover in time from his concussion issues to make the squad, with Nathan Harris covering the No 2 spot on the bench.
Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Famuina will offer enviable front row support from the sideline, among a group of replacements that also includes Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and Perenara.
Hansen is yet to decide on who will offer his back-up at out-half, with Aaron Cruden or Lima Sopoaga to be confirmed in the number 22 jersey tomorrow.
“This was a really tough team to pick because there were a number of players in great form vying for positions. But in the end the three selectors felt this was the best combination to take on the Lions in the first Test,” Hansen told the New Zealand Rugby website.
“I’d also like to congratulate Rieko on getting his first start for the All Blacks. His outstanding form throughout the season this year, including against the Lions, has earned him his start on the wing.
“We know this is a very good British and Irish Lions team; probably one of the best to have toured here.
“It’ll be a battle of contrasting styles which makes it an intriguing Test to prepare for and to be part of.
“We know the importance of this match and we will bring real energy and intensity. It’ll be a physical Test but, just as importantly, it will be a mental test.”
All Blacks (v British and Irish Lions):
15. Ben Smith
14. Israel Dagg
13. Ryan Crotty
12. Sonny Bill Williams
11. Rieko Ioane
10. Beauden Barrett
9. Aaron Smith
1. Joe Moody
2. Codie Taylor
3. Owen Franks
4. Brodie Retallick
5. Samuel Whitelock
6. Jerome Kaino
7. Sam Cane
8. Kieran Read (c)
16. Nathan Harris
17. Wyatt Crockett
18. Charlie Faumuina
19. Scott Barrett
20. Ardie Savea
21. TJ Perenara
22. Lima Sopoaga/Aaron Cruden
23. Anton Lienert-Brown
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