Hansen backing Ioane to shine

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen believes rookie wing Rieko Ioane will give a good account of himself in Saturday's Test against the Lions in Auckland.

Hansen said Ioane came through as the player who's been in the best form and that got him the left wing berth ahead of Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo and for the first Test he was the preferred option.

"He's a young man we've got a lot of confidence in and he's managed to head off two very good rugby players," Hansen told the All Blacks' official website.

The choice of Ryan Crotty at centre outside Sonny Bill Williams was down to looking to Anton Lienert-Brown to provide a similar effect to what Williams achieved off the bench at the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

Hansen said as a challenge the Lions series was up with the Rugby World Cup.

"You can feel the enthusiasm and the hunger in the hotel with the players," added Hansen.

"They're really up for it, and that doesn't guarantee you to win the thing but it does guarantee that your attitude's right and we know if our attitude's right and we get our clarity right then we're a good side and it means the opposition have to be too.

"They've selected a side that's capable of playing a different type of game than we play and that in itself is intriguing and it is going to be interesting to see the result once it has all be played out."

Murray ready for biggest game of his career

British and Irish Lions scrum-half Conor Murray is relishing the prospect of taking on New Zealand in the first clash of their three-Test series in Auckland on Saturday.

Murray has played in two Rugby World Cups, a winning Lions Test series and was a key cog in Ireland’s historic victory over the All Blacks last year in Chicago.

Big-game experience is certainly not lacking for the Ireland stalwart so when the 28-year-old says Saturday’s first Test against the All Blacks is the biggest game of his career, it pays to sit up and take notice.

The 2017 Lions are back in Auckland on the eve of the first Test at Eden Park, carrying momentum from impressive victories over the Crusaders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs.

But Murray – who came off the bench in the third and final Test four years ago against Australia – knows that all counts for nothing when kick off comes on Saturday evening.

And when asked if this was the biggest game of his career, the scrum-half was unequivocal in his reponse.

“Yes, to put it simply,” he told the British and Irish Lions' official website.

“Just to be involved in a group of players like this, with the talent that we have, to get the nod from the coaches fills you with confidence.

“To test yourself against the best team in the world is going to be really special.

“When I got selected for this Tour I knew it was going to be very tough to get into this matchday 23.

“We have worked hard, we have built our performances and we are at a place now where we are confident now.

“I am honoured to get a chance to represent this group.”

Murray is one of ten players in the matchday 23 for the Lions that downed the Wallabies four years ago with an historic victory in Sydney.

And the Munster number nine is confident this group can go even further than their predecessors.

“It has not been mentioned much, but we have definitely learned from 2013 in terms of a new group coming together,” he said.

“We weren’t used to each other when we met up so just working really hard to gel, to understand each other and the game plan has been massive.

“And there is a bit of confidence from the series win in 2013, we know this is a completely different kettle of fish, but to know that we can do it, and I think the potential of this squad is greater than it was in 2013.

“That is really exciting and a lot of the lads know that and are looking forward to getting started.”

Murray was one of the stand-out performers in Chicago when Ireland claimed victory over the All Blacks last year – for the first time in 111 years of trying.

That also gives belief, but Murray is not taking anything for granted against the reigning two-time world champions.

“It is something we definitely take confidence from, it is not the be all and end all, it was a long time ago,” he added.

“But to show that it can definitely be done is something we are proud of, we have looked at that game and certain things we did we will try and implement.

“It is getting real now, when we first arrived there were fans here that were quite vocal but over the last week you can just see the sheer volume of numbers arriving, the buzz is there and it feels proper now.”

Lealiifano makes emotional return for Brumbies

Brumbies utility back Christian Lealiifano made an emotional return to action for his side in an exhibition match in Singapore on Thursday.

Lealiifano, who has been out of action for ten months as he continues his recovery after being diagnosed with leukaemia last August, played a total of 31 minutes in the Brumbies' 61-14 victory over the Asian Pacific Dragons at Queenstown Stadium.

The Wallaby, who has scored 796 points for the club, showed some touches of the old magic during his spell on the pitch, kicking five conversions for a ten-point contribution, signifying another major step towards a full recovery.

Lealiifano was last in competitive action in the Brumbies' Super Rugby quarter-final defeat against the Highlanders in Canberra in July 2016 and, whilst getting back into the cut and thrust of the game is a goal, he acknowledges his journey is still continuing.

“It was fantastic to get back onto the field and play some rugby after such a long lay-off,” Lealiifano told the Brumbies' official website. 

“This is another step in the recovery process and it felt good to be on the field and fully involved again.

“I am concentrating totally on my recovery and my rugby at the moment and my focus is on helping the team and trying to get back to full health and my best as a rugby player.

“My journey is very much an ongoing process and I am mindful of taking each day as it comes. The Brumbies, as an organisation, have been incredibly supportive towards me and my family and the messages I have received from players, officials and supporters have been overwhelming.

“I would like to take the opportunity to thank everybody who has supported me and sent me messages of good will since my diagnosis. I have been truly humbled by the amount of worldwide support I have received and I thank every one of you for that support.”

Brumbies chief executive Michael Thomson was delighted to see Lealiifano back in Brumbies colours in a game situation in Singapore.

“It’s incredible to see the progress that Christian has made and we are delighted to have him back on the field,” said Thomson.

“However, he is still recovering from a very significant illness and our role as a club is to provide such support and assistance as we can to ensure that he makes a complete and total recovery.”

Photo credit: Official Brumbies website

'Italy play better without Parisse' - Ledesma

Wallabies scrum coach Mario Ledesma believes Italy play better without star back-row and regular captain Sergio Parisse.

Parisse is undoubtedly one of the best number eights in world rugby but Ledesma feels there is a sense of Ewing theory at hand when the Italians play without him.

That theory - brought into vogue by American sports journalist Bill Simmons - was coined when the New York Knicks of the mid-1990s seemingly played better without star Patrick Ewing than they did with him.

"He's one of the best number eights but I actually think they play better without him," Ledesma told the Australian Rugby Union's official website.

"When he plays it is all about him.

"He takes everything, he's pushing the 10 to get the ball, all the lineout calls are around him, all the scrum calls are around him.

"So I think for them, it's a really good chance to express themselves.

"That's not taking anything away from Sergio, I know him well - he's Argentinian by the way - he's an excellent player but I think as a team they play better without him."

Parisse has been left at home to rest after a long Northern Hemisphere season.

That has provided opportunity for a new crop of talent to make their mark and coach Conor O'Shea has emphasised the importance of getting games into this young group.

Despite that, new Italian captain Francesco Minto wasn't buying into Ledesma's comments.

"Sergio is such an amazing, all-round player - he could even play in the backs," said Minto.

"The positive thing is that we have so many young guys in this squad that plan to prove themselves and prove to the coach that they deserve to be here.

"Sergio has a very strong personality in the change rooms but Conor (O'Shea) is giving good time to the younger boys in the squad and hopefully we will see vindication on the field tomorrow."

McBryde full of praise for Wales players

Wales caretaker coach Robin McBryde sang his players' praises after they claimed a hard-fought 19-17 win over Samoa in Apia on Friday.

The visitors twice came from behind to secure the result and McBryde said he was proud of the character shown by his players after an illness bug had swept through his squad before the Test.

"We've had a little bit of an illness in the camp and the players could have used that but they dug in so deep," he said.

"I'm just so pleased for the players. It's been such a difficult tour in such a short space of time.

"We put ourselves in a very difficult position. We were 10-0 down early on and Samoa didn't disappoint.

"We knew they would be physical and get stronger, and they did that.

"We didn't help ourselves and hurt ourselves on a couple of occasions but the way the boys dug in and got through the arm wrestle was fantastic really."

Timani - 'I can make a difference'

Lopeti Timani believes his physicality was sorely missed by the Wallabies in their disappointing defeat to Scotland last weekend.

Highly-rated by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, Timani will make his first Test appearance of the year in Saturday's clash with Italy in Brisbane.

Timani has mainly featured this season in the lock position for club side the Melbourne Rebels but will run out in his favoured position at number eight for the Wallabies this weekend.

And Timani believes he has the potential to be one of the best number eights in world rugby and could be the missing ingredient the Wallabies need to turn around their fortunes.

"We needed someone like myself in the middle of the field," Timani told the West Australian.

"When I get my chance this week I'll make sure I bring that physicality, aggression, ball-carrying, big tackles.

"I can make a difference on the game.

"I still have a lot of stuff to work and try and improve so I can be my best, not in Australia but around the world.

"I'm feeling confident. The only thing I need to work on is my fitness.

"(Cheika) wants physicality and aggression from me. It's kind of my strength, I need to bring it to the game very week."

Whiteley - 'We're chasing perfection'

Springbok captain Warren Whiteley is not resting on his laurels and wants the France series to be a platform for future Bok success.

The Boks are leading the series 2-0 with the final Test taking place on Saturday in Johannesburg. Whiteley will become the first Lions captain since Andre Vos in 2001 to lead the Springboks out at his home ground Ellis Park.

The talismanic number eight believes there is a lot to improve upon and is aware that there are plenty of challenges awaiting the Boks this year with the Rugby Championship beginning in August. 

“We’re chasing perfection. We feel we’re headed in the right direction, although we know that there will be a lot of challenges to come this season. What’s good to know is that we have laid a foundation and have built a strong team culture,” Whiteley told Sport 24.

"France are a proud team, and I’m sure they will be looking to finish their season on a high.

“We had to work hard for the last two wins and this week should be no different. We haven’t spoken about a whitewash at all. We’re also not about sending statements to anybody. We know what we want to achieve, and we know that we still have a lot to improve on.”

Gatland - 'Tadhg getting better and better'

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland believes Tadhg Furlong has the potential to be one of the best props in the world.

Furlong will start at tighthead alongside loosehead Mako Vunipola and hooker Jamie George for the Lions' first Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park.

It has been a meteoric rise for Furlong, who has only played 16 times for Ireland having made his first start for the national team in last year's tour of South Africa.

And Gatland believes Furlong has a bright future ahead of him as he is still only 24 years of age and is not only a good scrummager, but possesses the all-round skill set and work ethic to makes him a real asset to the Lions. 

“Tadhg is getting better and better,” Gatland told The 42.

“He’s still pretty green but he’s got something about him – he’s explosive, he’s quick for a big man, surprisingly quick.

"He’s a good ball carrier and he had a nice bit of inside play with Johnny [Sexton] and then an offload [against the Maori All Blacks]. That’s what we’re encouraging players to do and he’s the modern prop, for me.

“You’ve got to have more than just set-piece, scrum and lineout. You’ve got to be able to get around the pitch and defend, so I think in the next few years he’s definitely going to be one of the world’s best in that position.

“He’s just getting better and better and I think he’ll come away from this tour having established himself as being one of the top props in world rugby.”

Lions scrum coach Graham Rowntree shared Gatland's sentiments, having worked closely with Furlong on this tour.

“I’m very impressed,” said Rowntree.. “He’s a young man, a young prop still learning his trade.

“But he’s learning a lot on this trip and I thought he was exceptional on Saturday night [against the Maori].

“With Tadhg, it’s a lot more than just set-piece; his game-involvements – we have that much data like GPS data and you can really see who is working. He’s putting shifts in at the set-piece and around the field.

“It’s going to be difficult, but Tadhg is certainly learning a lot as a young player and I’m enjoying working with him.”

Preview: Argentina v Georgia

After a 2-0 series loss on home soil to a depleted England side, victory over Georgia is vital to the Pumas' morale at Estádio 23 de Agosto.

Last week's defeat was their ninth in their last 10 international games which, albeit against Rugby Championship and Six Nations outfits, is a dismal record that desperately needs to improve. Tackling Georgia at home is therefore a perfect chance to lift their supporters' spirits.

It's not just the Test scene that has struggled for Argentina as their Super Rugby side, the Jaguares, have once again not put themselves into the play-off reckoning as they sit on five wins from 12 games, well off the pace being set by the Lions in their Africa 2 conference.

They have made six personnel changes to their starting line-up as up front Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro comes in at loosehead, Guido Petti in the second-row and there is a new back-row of Tomás Lezana, Rodrigo Báez and Leonardo Senatore as Daniel Hourcade freshens his forwards.

In the backs changes are also found as Matías Moroni returns on the wing, with Ramiro Moyano wearing 11 in place of Emiliano Boffelli.

Georgia meanwhile have beaten Canada and the USA in recent games and had they not lost 8-7 to Romania in March they could be on a seven-match winning run heading into this fixture. In contrast to Argentina though, their international opponents haven't been of the same quality.

Rugby is however flourishing in the nation, especially after a successful U20 Championship that was well attended, so this is an excellent opportunity for the senior XV to show their worth this week as the ongoing debate surrounding their inclusion in top tier competition rumbles on.

The boot of Merab Kvirikashvili will of course be critical to their hopes of victory but it is going to be a difficult ask against an Argentina outfit reeling from those negatives to England. Another defeat would be unimaginable and would certainly pile further pressure on Hourcade.

Previous results:

2015: Argentina won 54-9 in Gloucester
2013: Argentina won 29-18 in San Juan
2011: Argentina won 25-7 in Palmerston North
2007: Argentina won 33-3 in Lyon

Prediction: Home win for us, Argentina by 15.

The teams:

Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Matías Moroni, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Báez, 6 Tomás Lezana, 5 Matías Alemanno, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Enrique Pieretto, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Ramiro Herrera, 19 Pablo Matera, 20 Benjamin Macome, 21 Gonzalo Bertanou, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Germán Schulz

Georgia: 15 Merab Kvirikashvili, 14 Tamaz Mchedlidze, 13 Davit Kacharava, 12 Merab Sharikadze, 11 Alexander Todua, 10 Lasha Khmaladze, 9 Vasil Lobzhanidze, 8 Beka Bitsadze, 7 Viktor Kolelishvili, 6 Lasha Lomidze, 5 Konstantin Mikautadze, 4 Giorgi Nemsadze, 3 Soso Bekoshvili, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili
Replacements: 16 Shalva Mamukashvili, 17 Tornike Mataradze, 18 Anton Peikrishvili, 19 Giorgi Chkhaidze, 20 Otar Giorgadze, 21 Giorgi Begadze, 22 Lasha Malaguradze, 23 Soso Matiashvili

Date: Saturday, June 24
Venue: Estádio 23 de Agosto, Jujuy
Kick-off: 16:15 local (19:15 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Egon Seconds (South Africa)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)

Read - 'We expect to win'

Kieran Read says the All Blacks are used to dealing with the weight of expectation ahead of the first British and Irish Lions Test.

The sides clash at Eden Park on Saturday with Read starting his first match in two months after recovering from a broken thumb.

Should the All Blacks lose the three-match Test series they will be the first New Zealand side to do so since 1976.

But Read says the best way of dealing with this pressure is by facing it head on.

"There's always pressure on us," Read told Stuff.

"We don't mind pressure. Losing would be pretty bad, and any time we lose it's something we don't like.

"So we're prepared to go out and play our game. We know it's going to be a massive challenge, but this group as All Blacks want to take that head on and embrace it. It's an exciting time for us.

"We'll go out there and expect to win, as probably everyone in New Zealand is going to expect us to win. But we've got to actually go out and do that. And that comes through our week, our preparation and the mindset we turn up with on Saturday."

When asked if this meant the All Blacks are a team more motivated by the fear of failure than the pleasure of success, Read was quick to insist it was the latter.

"Most definitely not. We love winning. That is the one that drives you, but you can't always be focused on winning, you've got to be focused on what you can do as a team to get better. This is a series where winning is a high motivation, but all our focus is on tomorrow night, because we know the challenge is going to be massive," he continued.

"Obviously there's a little bit of unknown but I'm feeling great, the body in good nick, and the emotions and adrenalin will certainly kick in tomorrow. I'm pumped for the test match.

"I guess the biggest challenge for me is not to go quiet when I get a little bit tired. As leader you've got to be front and centre, so it's making sure I keep working at my game. I've got plenty of great men beside me – 22 other guys who will do their job."

Meanwhile, Read has put the experience of facing the Lions as right up there with playing a World Cup final.

"It's probably the most important test right now for me," he said.

"I certainly know what's coming. It will be a different beast to World Cup finals and different games I've played in. We've just got to adapt as quickly as we can. That's something we've learned over the last few years as a team – to adapt and adjust and whatever gets thrown our way we'll try and overcome it."