Owen Farrell gets Warren Gatland’s backing as selection looms

Warren Gatland has given the green light for Owen Farrell to start Saturday’s first test against the All Blacks but his specific role in the Lions line-up will have a massive impact on Johnny Sexton.

Saracens and England fly-half Farrell was withdrawn from Saturday’s matchday squad to face the Maori All Blacks with a mild thigh strain, having been named as the replacement cover for starting 10, Sexton.

The development and a less than clear prognosis from the Lions ahead of the game had led to speculation he could miss the test series opener this weekend at Eden Park, but, speaking yesterday, head coach Gatland declared Farrell good to go and would resume training today.

“Yep. He could have played on Saturday (against the Maori),” said Gatland.

“If it was a test match he would have played. We just made a decision that it wasn’t worth taking that risk. It’s a quad strain that was very high and it’s not on his kicking leg — it’s on his left leg.

“I’ve no doubt that he will be 100% fit for the first test. He will train tomorrow.”

Gatland has the option of playing Farrell as an inside centre as the England boss Eddie Jones does in partnership with regular fly-half George Ford. Sexton successfully played alongside Farrell in that configuration during the Lions’ win over Crusaders nine days ago to such a degree that it is a now a viable option for taking on the world champions.

Yesterday in Hamilton, though, Gatland was not showing his hand and insisted no decision would be made until Wednesday’s test selection meeting with his assistant coaches.

He did, however, praise the Ireland fly-half’s performance last Saturday against the Maori when Sexton looked back to his sharpest as the Lions won 32-10, following up his pre-match comments that the Leinster star had rediscovered his “mojo”.

“As I’ve said, I thought he started the tour really ropey. I was pretty disappointed with the way he played for Leinster in that semi-final (against Scarlets). It was not a typical Johnny Sexton performance and in the BaaBaas game it didn’t go particularly well for him and he seemed to lack a bit of confidence.

“But coming on against the Crusaders and on Saturday, he has come back and played well. Generally, his kicking game has been pretty good, he attacked the line, put us into some holes, and he played flat too, which was better compared to (Maori fly-half) Damian McKenzie, who tended to play pretty deep. We are really happy with him.”

As to the dilemma of starting either Sexton or Farrell at fly-half or playing them as a midfield 10-12 axis, Gatland also drew attention to how impressed he has been by Saturday’s inside centre Ben Te’o and his partnership with outside centre Jonathan Davies.

Of the Sexton-Farrell 10-12 unit, Gatland said: “To be honest, until we’ve sat down and talked about it, it’s one of the potential scenarios.

“We could go that way, we could potentially change and do that during the match as well. We haven’t sat down and discussed and we’ll wait till Wednesday. We’ve got an idea in our heads.

“There has obviously been some good performances, the 12-13 combination on Saturday was pretty good, the balance was pretty good. Ben Te’o’s done really well and has caused opposition teams problems, Jonathan Joseph against the Higlanders looked dangerous as well (at outside centre). And then we’ve got some choices at 10 and do we look at the Sexton-Farrell combination too in terms of that distributing ability. But we are creating some chances, we are getting in behind teams too.”

The midfield composition is just one area of the test team Gatland has to decide upon before Thursday’s team announcement. Yesterday he admitted the make-up of his back three was still unresolved, while the back row was another cloudy area following the return to full fitness of tour captain Sam Warburton.

“There’s final decisions still to be made at lock, back-row, the back-three as well, and midfield too.

“There’s a great opportunity for players to play for slots.

“There’s opportunities for players to go out and perform. You just never know.

“We won’t sit down to pick the team until Wednesday and that’s only fair on the players who are taking the field on Tuesday.”

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