First Billy Vunipola, and now possibly Owen Farrell, the two players that the Lions could ill-afford to lose if they were to really take the game to All Blacks in the test series that begins in eight days’ time at Eden Park. Vunipola’s loss was a fait accompli before the squad departed but news that his Saracens’ teammate suffered a grade one quadriceps strain in training on Thursday just hours after being named on the bench to face the Maori All Blacks on Saturday is a grievous blow.
arren Gatland had only been speaking of the need to wrap Farrell in cotton wool by naming him among the replacements a short time before – ‘ he has been pretty crucial for us and we need to make sure he is fit for the following week (the first test) ‘ – before the thunderbolt struck. Much as there might be positive interpretation of the news in that such injuries have a 7-10 day recovery span, there is no doubt that it will be a major concern for the Lions with so much riding on the opening match of the three test series.
Even if the best case scenario comes to pass and Farrell makes a return to the colours, he will not have been able to play a part in training and will probably be hampered as a goal-kicker. On that front, at least, the Lions are well covered in that they have Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny Sexton at their disposal. The England and Saracens playmaker will be replaced on the bench by Wales fly-half Dan Biggar.
There are other pressing matters for the Lions to address as they prepare to face one of New Zealand’s most cherished sides, be it the possibility that tour captain, Sam Warburton may not be up to scratch with his match sharpness, taking up a position on the bench with Munster’s Peter O’Mahony leading the team into action against the Maori, and that the back three is far from a proven, productive force in action so far. But the Farrell injury will hover over the entire build-up to the test series, the Beckham 2002 World Cup metatarsal.
The midfield was one of the selection conundrums to be solved but only in a positive sense. Sexton, who had had a disappointing start to the tour, had shown well when coming on against the Crusaders, slotting in at 10 with Farrell shifting across to his England position at inside centre. That partnership was sharp and assured, offering Gatland a different option in terms of style. England’s Ben Te’o had performed with such vigour and cleverness that he had laid great claim to the no.12 shirt even though he has only had one start for England but now it appears that if the gloomy tidings on Farrell prove to be true, then a Sexton and Te’o axis becomes the only realistic permutation, removing the option of pairing two playmakers together at some stage.
The combination is sound in itself, of course, although Sexton has to continue in the vein of last weekend’s output against the Crusaders and not revert to the flaky, hangdog figure of the first weekend against the Provincial Barbarians. Gatland had been enthusiastic about the upturn in Sexton’s form and glad that it offered him the opportunity to shield Farrell. So much for that.
“Johnny was really good off the bench the other day and the combination of 10 and 12 was pretty seamless,” said Gatland.
“Johnny needs more rugby and we're building on that. He was just down a little on confidence but he's got a bit of his mojo back.”
Te’o is a talented, influential midfielder, a player with the same sort of technical skill-set and mental toughness that are the hallmarks of his fellow New Zealanders when they don the black shirt. Te’o grew up in Auckland but left at the age of 17 to carve out a career in rugby league before heading to Leinster to re-educate himself in the code he had played as a Kiwi lad. It has been some re-immersion with Te’o still surplus to requirements when touring with England in Australia 12 months ago.
The 30 year has played second fiddle to the George Ford-Farrell partnership , impressing off the bench, earning only one start but he is now a centre of proper attention, a muscular yet nuanced player. What is more, he has played with Sexton at Leinster (and Farrell with England), and, as he puts it, ‘feels comfortable playing 12 or 13.’
There will be plenty of exhortation coming from O’Mahony, too, as he leads the team down the tunnel, the personification of ‘Munster mongrel,’ in the words of Gatland, speaking of an ability to play with ‘special pride and to dig deep.’
Gatland made it clear that the efforts of the back-row against the Crusaders had made a forceful impression. Of course there is still room for manoeuvre and Warburton could slip into O’Mahony’s number six slot if the management feel that O’Brien is indispensable but that they want to make best use of Warburton’s guile at the breakdown. O’Mahony, though, offers a splendid lineout option, attacking the opposition and securing plenty of his own.
Warburton, who has managed only two proper appearances in 11 weeks, was effective in spurts against the Highlanders but contributed nothing like the turbo-charged relentlessness of the O’Mahony, O’Brien and Toby Faletau combo that stressed the Crusaders to the point of distraction.
“Sam fully understands that that loose forward trio went outstandingly well against the Crusaders,” said Gatland. “The challenge for them is to repeat it.”
There are others on parade, too, from full-back, Leigh Halfpenny to Jamie George at hooker, the 26 year old Saracen who has yet to start for England despite winning 17 caps but who is now in pole position for the Lions. Gatland believes that Halfpenny has added to a much-needed element to his repertoire.
“Leigh’s counter-attacking and scoring of tries has improved significantly and that's kind of what we need from a 15,” said Gatland who has opted for just those qualities in his preference for Anthony Watson on the wing.
“We know how strong he is defensively, but it's the attacking threat we're looking for him to add to us on Saturday.”
On that, and other matters, rests so much. It is time for delivery on all fronts.
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