Scarlets skipper Ken Owens will lead the British & Irish Lions in the second game on their tour to New Zealand when they face the Blues on Wednesday at Eden Park.Owens missed his regions Guinness PRO12 semi-final and final wins in Ireland due to an ankle injury, but has recovered to make his Lions debut against the Super Rugby franchise. He is one of 11 debutants in a side that shows 15 changes from the team that beat the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians at the weekend.
“Ken has worked really hard on his recovery and it’s great to have him available. He has captained the Scarlets and has assumed a leadership role within the camp and it is a great opportunity for him,” said Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
“We have made 15 changes to the starting XV and we are excited to see what this team is able to do against the Blues. We have stated from the off that we want to give every player a start in the first three games and Wednesday is an opportunity for this set of players to show what they can do in a Lions jersey.
“It was good to get the win under our belts last weekend. The boys in the stand were itching to get their chance and they are really excited about Wednesday.
“We are expecting a big crowd at Eden Park. It will be the first of three matches there for us and we know the atmosphere will be outstanding. We are hoping for some good weather and are expecting a tough, fast and open game of rugby.
“We have a few work ons from last weekend and we know we need to be more clinical. We created some good opportunities against the Barbarians but didn’t see them through and that is something we want to improve on.”
Owens will be joined in the matchday 23 by five other Welsh players. Leigh Halfpenny starts at full back and the Ospreys duo of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar play at half-back. Justin Tipuric is at openside and Liam Williams is on the bench.
Lining-up against Owens and his Lions team will be former Scarlets full back Michael Collins. He features in a back division that is set to include All Blacks midfielder Sonny Bill Williams, who has been given a chance to test his injured knee.
Williams sat out the Blues’ 34-29 win over the Reds in Samoa on Friday after picking up the injury a week earlier in their 16-16 draw with the Chiefs. He will have to come through a fitness test on Monday to earn his place and become one of eight All Blacks in the home side.
“In the last 30 days we have played four Super games in New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa, and now the British and Irish Lions. There’s no doubt it will be challenging turnaround for us and we are fortunate to have some senior players back from injury,” said Blues coach Tana Umaga.
Missing from the side will be the 77-times capped back row man Jerome Kaino, who had surgery on his knee in mid-April. He hopes to be fit for the test series against the Lions.
British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny; Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Jack McGrath, Ken Owens (captain), Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander
Replacements: Rory Best, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Greig Laidlaw, Johnny Sexton, Liam Williams
Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams/ TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons, Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scrafton, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steve Luatua
Replacements: Hame Faiva, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kara Pryor, Sam Nock, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane/Melani Nanai
Lions v Auckland – P 15 W8 D 1 L 6
1888: W 6-3, L 0-4, W 3-0, D 1-1
1904: L 0-13
1908: L 0-11
1930: L 6-19
1950: W 32-9
1959: W 15-10
1966: W 12-6
1971: W 19-12
1977: W 34-15
1983: L 12-13
1993: L 18-23
2005: W 17-13