New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has described the British and Irish Lions test series as a “once-in-a- lifetime opportunity” for his players.
Hansen has recalled fit-again captain Kieran Read and centre Ryan Crotty for Saturday’s first test at Eden Park, while in a surprise move he has replaced experienced wing Julian Savea with 20-year-old Rieko Ioane.
Crusaders No.8 Read last played more than seven weeks ago, when he suffered a broken thumb while on Super Rugby duty.
But he is now fit to pack down in the All Blacks’ back-row alongside Jerome Kaino and Sam Cane as New Zealand look to extend their long unbeaten run at Eden Park.
Elsewhere, World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams partners Crotty in midfield, with Crotty replacing Anton Lienert-Brown following last week’s 78-0 victory over Samoa.
It will be the third time that Ioane has faced the Lions this month, having starred for the Blues against them before lining up in Maori colours last weekend. He now makes a first test start on his third All Blacks appearance.
“There is a real understanding that this is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity,” said Hansen.
“The players are well aware of the history of the All Blacks and the Lions and are determined to respect that history with their performances.
“We know this is a very good British and Irish Lions team; probably one of the best to have toured here.
“It will 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 will be a physical test, but just as importantly, it will be a mental test.
“There will be a unique and electric atmosphere at Eden Park on Saturday night. It is something we’re really looking forward to, and we can’t wait.”
Reflecting on the team selection, Hansen said: “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.
“They (Read and Crotty) have both been on target to return for this game all the way through, are both in great shape, and, together with the rest of the squad, they are really excited at what is ahead of us.
“I would 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.”
All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock, meanwhile, summed up an acute sense of anticipation and history as the world champions prepare for Lions battle.
“This first test sits right up there,” said Whitelock. “It is something only a few great All Blacks get to do.
“Some guys can have outstanding 10-year careers and never get to play against them (Lions). It’s very fortunate for this current squad to be involved.
“Comparing it to other big games, there is a similar amount of pressure there, with the hype and the atmosphere. It has been one of those things that we’ve been talking about all year.
“Now it’s here, and the boys are really excited about it. You can see the energy out there. It is something really easy to get up for.
“You ask anyone walking down the street, and they will talk about previous tours, whether it be the Lions or other international sides, playing three-test series.
“Playing the same team three times is a challenge, and hopefully these tours stay around,” concluded Whitelock.
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