By Simon Lewis, Auckland
Warren Gatland has given his players four games to prove they are worthy of a British & Irish Lions Test place against the All Blacks.
The tourists kick off their 10-game tour of New Zealand on Saturday against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei, when the countdown begins in earnest to the first of three Tests against the world champions at Auckland's Eden Park on June 24.
They then play Super Rugby franchises Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders in quick succession and head coach Gatland wants his Test team to emerge over those first four games in order to field as close as possible to his first-choice side in the game five against the Maori All Backs in Rotorua on June 17.
“The Maori game is pretty important for us, isn't it?” Gatland (pictured) said today as the Lions went through a training session at QBE Stadium in Auckland's North Harbour. “That's a week before the first Test and you might be mirroring reasonably close to your starting 15 for the first Test.”
Of particular interest for Lions supporters will be who wins the battle to be starting fly-half with Ireland's Johnny Sexton, England's Owen Farrell and Welshman Dan Biggar vying for the coveted red number 10 jersey.
Sexton got the nod to be the first starting out-half of the tour when he was named in the Lions XV to face the NZ Barbarians this weekend, his fellow 2013 Lions Farrell announced among the replacements. Biggar will be handed his opportunity to start, either next Wednesday in Auckland when the Lions play the Blues at Eden Park or in Christchurch the following Saturday against the Crusaders, with Gatland looking to give each of his 41-man squad early involvement.
Playing Farrell as an inside centre in tandem with Sexton or Biggar, as he has done for England alongside George Ford, is another path for Gatland to take and he said: “We'll see what happens on the weekend. Owen is on the bench, so he might get some time in the midfield. We know that's an option for us, having played in the midfield. I, personally, and the other coaches, think he's a world-class 10.
“It's not just with Sexton and Farrell, you've got Biggar as well. There's some real experience there and knowing the three of them, they're desperate to play and start in that position.
“It was quite funny last week at the end of the training, I just said I would have a chat to the 10s. Dan was there and Johnny Sexton was there, and Owen was over there and Johnny said, 'Don't worry about him, he's a midfielder.'
“There's already a bit of banter about and the players are very aware of the competition in that position, so they'll get a chance, the three of them, to start. Johnny starts on Saturday and then the other two will start the next two games.”
Gatland preferred to look to Sexton and Farrell's similarities rather than the differences in their playing styles.
“They're both capable of playing flat to the gain line, which is important. They're both great goalkickers with a lot of experience and I think at the moment, not just the two of them but the three of them are bringing out the best in each other.
“There's going to be some real competition. It's not just their attacking, they're going to have to be strong defensively too. Their leadership is going to be important as well in terms of their communication and implementing the game plan that we can take the All Blacks on with.”