Johnny be good as Lions sweat on Farrell


Wellington (AFP)

The spotlight will be firmly on Johnny Sexton when the British and Irish Lions play the Maori All Blacks on Saturday, with the Lions unsure if top fly-half Owen Farrell will be fit for the first Test.

Farrell, the Lions' leading playmaker, was almost certain to start in the first Test against the All Blacks next weekend, until he suffered a thigh strain at training on Thursday.

"He will be back on the field as soon as possible," was all assistant coach Steve Borthwick could offer as a heavily bandaged Farrell watched the Lions train on Friday.

It is an injury that usually sidelines a player for seven to 10 days. But Borthwick would not put a time frame on Farrell's return, saying: "He will be back as soon as he is able to be back."

Gatland had almost settled on his match-day 23 to face the All Blacks next weekend until Farrell's plight threw open the pivotal 10 slot.

Ireland's Sexton, 31, the Lions' star when they toured Australia four years ago, had already been named to start against the Maori.

Farrell was on the bench, possibly to partner Sexton in the second-half playmaker combination which the Lions used against the Canterbury Crusaders.

But if Farrell does not recover in a week then an out-of-form Sexton is likely to wear the 10 jersey in the first Test.

"Johnny needs more rugby," Gatland admitted when he named his side to face the Maori.

"He knows he hasn't been playing the best but he's got some mojo back and we wanted to give him the start."

- All Blacks backs -

Although Gatland has said he did not want to show his Test hand too early, he has telegraphed the core of his top line up by naming 11 players from the team that beat the Canterbury Crusaders last weekend in the side to play the Maori.

That includes keeping the loose-forward trio of Taulupe Faletau, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony at the expense of tour captain Sam Warburton, who is on the bench.

"He's well aware of the competition that's there at the moment," Gatland said.

"He fully understands that loose-forward trio went outstandingly well against the Crusaders.

"The challenge for them is do it again, and if they do it again then we will sit down and make what we think is the right selection for the Test matches."

Like the Crusaders game, the clash with the Maori is being seen as an unofficial Test and the Lions can expect to have their defensive systems tested by a side with a reputation for free-flowing rugby.

The backs contain three of the most elusive runners in New Zealand -- Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie -- with All Blacks scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow to set them alight.

The Maori All Blacks beat the Lions 19-13 when they last toured 12 years ago, and coach Colin Cooper has drummed into his squad that they can do it again.

"It will be about attacking holes and manipulating their defence," said McKenzie.