British and Irish Lions 2017: What Owen Farrell's injury means for the Lions ahead of All Blacks first Test

The thigh strain that has ruled Farrell out of this weekend's game against the Maori All Blacks could have serious ramifications for the Lions

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland’s plans for the first Test against the All Blacks were flipped upside down on Thursday when Owen Farrell, the leading contender to start at fly-half for the British and Irish Lions, was struck down with a thigh strain in training.

As a consequence, Farrell has been pulled from the squad that will face the Maori All Blacks this Saturday with Dan Biggar filling his role among the replacements, and there is now serious doubt that the England international will be available for next week’s opening encounter with New Zealand.

The 25-year-old’s potential absence is another bitter blow for the Lions, having already lost Billy Vunipola to a shoulder injury before the tour even started as well as Stuart Hogg this week when it was confirmed he suffered a broken eye socket and damaged cheekbone in last weekend’s win over the Crusaders.

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Without Farrell in their ranks, the Lions would be missing not only one of their best performers so far on the tour but also their most vocal. Farrell’s reputation for controlling the team goes before him, and he is heard on the pitch far more than Johnny Sexton – the man that will benefit most from his absence by taking the starting role – and Wales stand-off Biggar.

Farrell has already left his print on this tour, too. He came off the bench in the opening game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians to set up the match-winning try for Anthony Watson, delivering the final two passes to both Ross Moriarty and his England teammate. However, while Sexton does have the skillset to match Farrell’s passing ability, it’ll be in defence where the Lions are hit hardest.

There is not another fly-half currently plying his trade on the international stage that hits the opposition harder than Farrell, and certainly not in the Lions squad. With the All Blacks ready to send powerhouse Sonny Bill Williams down the 10 channel, Farrell’s absence could well be missed most when the Lions do not have the ball. Sexton for all his commitment cannot offer the same in defence as Farrell, and the Irishman’s injury record also raises cause for concern if he faces a barrage of Kiwi loose-forwards heading his way.

Farrell’s removal also robs Gatland of one his most reliable goal kickers, although it does raise the prospect of Leigh Halfpenny, the likely Test full-back, reprising his role from 2013 in taking on the kicking duties for the Lions. Sexton is also up there with the best when it comes to kicking for goal, while Biggar proved against the Highlanders – and also in the last 18 months while Halfpenny was injured – that he can be trusted if needed. While Farrell is probably Gatland’s favoured kicker, he will happily put his faith in Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard ticking over. After all, the Lions cannot let any points go to waste against the reigning world champions.

The silver lining for the Lions is that should Farrell miss out on the first Test, a tried and tested partnership is ready and waiting to click back into gear. Sexton has partnered Conor Murray since the scrum-half tied down his place in the Ireland side at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and it would fitting for the combination to be reunited on the same soil six years down the line.

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Farrell could pass the kicking duties on to Leigh Halfpenny (Getty)

There are also signs that Sexton is beginning to rediscover his best form. He came off the bench early in the win over the Crusaders to replace Jonathan Davies and looked like the fly-half that controlled the Lions back line four years ago with decisive accuracy, and after struggling in Leinster’s Pro12 semi-final defeat as well as the first game here in New Zealand, it was a welcome site not just for Lions fans but for Gatland too, as he explained on Thursday.

“He was really good off the bench the other day and the combination of 10 and 12 was pretty seamless,” said Gatland. “He was just down a little on confidence but he's got a bit of his mojo back, and we wanted to give him a start against the Maori.”

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Sexton will be the main beneficiary of Farrell's injury (Getty)

Suddenly Sexton may find himself thrown straight back into the firing line, but without Farrell by his side at 12 as a pressure-release vale, how will he cope? That falls on Ben Te’o, and the early signs are good if Gatland has the Auckland-born Samoan centre in his mind for the No 12 shirt. Te’o is a very strong ball carrier, but has also shown an ability to offload in the tackle that is all too rare among the touring squad. If he can create the space that Sexton needs to work in, the Irishman’s famous ‘loop’ will give the All Blacks plenty of headaches.

Farrell now faces a race against time, and it’s not out of the equation that he could recover in time to start the test series from the very beginning. If Gatland were to gamble and start with Farrell in the side, don’t be surprised to see Halfpenny taking the shots at goal to reduce the stress on Farrell’s injured thigh muscle, but for the England half-back general, that first Test must feel a long way off right now.

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