Thinking on their feet, adapting to changing conditions and shifting momentum; that’s the making of competitive Test rugby performers, and in the midfield partnership between Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, Andy Farrell is beginning to like what he sees about these 2017 Lions.
The way the two fly-halves combined on Saturday having been thrown together in adversity as a 10-12 axis to help defeat the Crusaders on their home patch in Christchurch has whetted the appetite for the pairing to be resurrected come the Test series with the All Blacks, beginning in 11 days.
The pair were united in the 28th minute at AMI Stadium when outside centre Jon Davies went off for a Head Injury Assessment from which he would not return.
Davies’ exit pushed Ben Te’o from inside to outside centre with Sexton moving into the fly-half berth as Saracens star Farrell switched to the position he occupies successfully for England in tandem with their starting No.10 George Ford.
What works for Eddie Jones did just fine for Lions head coach Warren Gatland in Christchurch.
The understanding and communication between the English and Irish playmakers was evident in the number of try-scoring opportunities created for and ultimately wasted by their outside backs.
It also belied the claims from Lions defence coach Farrell that Sexton and his son Owen had not previously trained together in that formation.
“I thought both of them (Farrell and Sexton) combined very well (in attack). I thought our shape was good. We created a lot of chances out of something and nothing.
"At times there wasn’t much on and we created space for ourselves and made a few line breaks on the back of it. So obviously that cohesion worked pretty well for parts of the game.”
Neither had outside back replacement Anthony Watson trained at full-back on this tour yet he too was thrown in as cover in the last line of defence when Stuart Hogg ran into the elbow of team-mate Conor Murray eight minutes before Davies went off.
In spite of that and the enforced absence of Davies, the hastily reshuffled backline came up trumps defensively as far as Farrell senior was concerned, the Lions boosted by having kept the Crusaders tryless for the first time in 38 matches and in a season of 14 straight Super Rugby victories in which they have averaged 37 points scored per game.
“It changed a little bit on Saturday night simply because we hadn’t run there together,” Andy Farrell said of his defensive line.
“Anthony Watson hadn’t trained at all at full-back and I thought he adapted fantastically well. It would help if we had a little more time (in training) but we will get time from now on in.
"At this level when you explain something to a group and you think you’re talking to just a certain minority, the rest of them tend to listen as well and pick it up. I thought we adapted very well.
“It ain’t about just sprinting off the line. It’s about adapting to the situation. If the opposition get an offload, then the system has to change. I thought our decision-making of which system to use at the right time was very good on Saturday.”
The lack of tries from the tourists was a concern to the Lions coaches but the 12-3 victory over New Zealand’s finest and most in-form Super Rugby outfit clearly put a spring in the step of the entire entourage as they headed to Dunedin, their early missteps put down to the teething problems that can be expected when a group of 41 players from four nations come together and are asked to play twice a week against top-quality opposition.
“It’s always nice to win and the manner that we did is great,” Andy Farrell said.
“There are all sorts of stats and records, but it is about (the next game) now. You have a beer or two and chat about it, but the lads are back on the horse the next day. It’s just about making sure we are going in the right direction and improving until we get to the Test matches.
"We enjoyed Saturday and the feeling I get at this moment in time, and what I would feel if I was playing or in the stand watching, is one of excitement that I want to get out there and build on it. There is excitement in the group.”
As the defence coach suggested, the win over the Crusaders was being treated as merely an encouraging building block towards the first Test at Eden Park on June 24, and Farrell said another important step towards the All Blacks series was the emergence of some leadership in defence.
With a midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph and Jared Payne at full-back against the Highlanders this morning, Farrell was hoping for some hands to go up just as they did last Saturday in Christchurch.
“I’m still looking for defensive leaders. I think everyone should be a leader in defence. If somebody messes up, everyone pays. I’m still looking for people to grab hold of the system and take it forward.
“We want that competition, don’t we? That’s why I’m not singling people out (as defensive captains). We’ll see who steps up.”
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