Owen Farrell is the embodiment of the ‘all for one, one for all’ ethos that is the foundation for winning Lions tours, and also for those that finish on the wrong side of the ledger but are close-run, like South Africa 2009.
Farrell is so stalwart in his defence of the principle that when he was asked in the build-up to the Crusaders match if he knew it was being billed as the fourth Test, his deadpan reply, in an accent that is still broadest Wigan, was: “No. I haven’t heard that.”
Farrell’s message was that there will be no division in the 2017 ranks, however tough it gets. In the meantime, what this Lions squad needs is players like Farrell who project not only with deep rooted self-belief, but who also adhere to an ‘in defeat – defiance’ mentality. Especially as this tour of New Zealand will get more demanding with every game.
What is also apparent is that the fly-half stocks are not as flush as we thought when the Lions made landfall here ten days ago, and that coach Warren Gatland has little chance of wrapping Farrell in a cotton-wool cocoon before the Test series.
The concussion injury that saw Dan Biggar ruled out for a week after an HIA during the Blues game means that the Welsh fly-half might not be available for either the Highlanders, or even the Maori game on Saturday. That could leave only a rehabilitating Johnny Sexton as cover, because Stuart Hogg is only an occasional club fly-half – and at the moment has enough on his plate lifting his game at full-back and avoiding further injury.
We have now reached the stage where Gatland, having fulfilled his undertaking to give everyone in the 41-man squad a run in the first three games, will start cutting to the chase in selection. That will mean a beady focus in the remaining provincial matches on the combinations he will want to field against the All Blacks.
It will be a rude awakening to some in the squad, because it will dawn on those who have not impressed in the limited game-time they have been given that there is no dress-rehearsal element on Lions tours. You either hit the ground running or become part of the supporting cast – with Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw among the luminaries in need of big gains the next time they play.
Having been the Lions Test fly-half ahead of Farrell on the 2013 tour in Australia, Sexton knows the score. Given his below-par performances against the NZ Barbarians and off the bench against the Blues and despite an improved performance against the Crusaders, the Irish 10 knows that, barring injury, Farrell is firm-favourite to supplant him when the Lions run-out for the first Test at Eden Park in a fortnight.
There was no disguising Gatland’s endorsement of Farrell as the main man soon after the Lions arrived in Christchurch. When the head coach was asked about the improvement he has made in the four years between Lions tours he said: “I’ve seen a massive development in him as a player – he is one of the most influential players in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Should the Lions have to call in a replacement 10, England’s George Ford – currently with Eddie Jones’ squad in Argentina – is no certainty.
In terms of logistics Gatland has other candidates much closer at hand, with both the Scotland and Wales squads in the region.
Jet-lag and travel distances mean it might make more sense to bring in Finn Russell, who is on tour with Scotland in Australia and Fiji, or cherry-pick from the Welsh squad which will play Tonga in Auckland on Friday, and Samoa in Apia the following weekend.
The Welsh fly-half contingent features Sam Davies (Ospreys), former Kiwi Gareth Anscombe (Blues), and Owen Williams, who is on his way to Gloucester from Leicester.
Other handy potential replacements in the Welsh squad include its captain, the veteran Lions centre Jamie Roberts, and probably the most in-form scrum-half in Europe alongside Conor Murray, Gareth Davies.
Davies was a driving force in the Scarlets’ PRO12 title win, and was unlucky not to make the initial Lions selection. His speed around the fringes would be a bonus for a tour party in which the work-load on the three scrum-halves has an unrelenting feel, with Rhys Webb cramping-up at the end of the Blues match.
However, the one player that Gatland – and the army of Lions supporters following this tour – do not want to see hit the buffers before the Test series is Farrell. And for that reason the head coach has to ensure he is on the pitch only when it is in the Lions best interests, not because they are short of fly-half cover.