Owen Farrell may not be the best player in the world, but he is close to it.
Without doubt he is the key player for the British and Irish Lions in 2017. If Farrell continues in the fashion he has played for England and Saracens over the past 18 months the Lions have a better than 50/50 chance of winning the series against New Zealand.
Sadly, the early rumours and selection signs suggest that Warren Gatland may not select Farrell in the starting XV.
While it is always difficult to separate tabloid mischief from well sourced steers, the selection of Ben Te’o seems like a pursuit of Jamie Roberts Mark II.
That is particularly the case given the numerous sources in the British and Irish media that suggested England’s 13 Joseph, was lucky to make the plane and that Davies is Gatland’s preference at 13.
Gatland has form. He has been heavily criticised in the Northern Hemisphere for refusing to steer away from ‘Warren Ball’.
The predictable Welsh side of the 2015 World Cup lacked imagination and much of that was a result of Gatland’s obstinate midfield selections that showed a reluctance to ‘move with the times’.
It is entirely possible that the Biggar, Roberts, Davies Welsh combination will be replaced with a Sexton, Te’o, Davies Lions axis. That would be a mistake. In fact it would be a tragedy for all neutrals too.
Gatland’s reasoning for such an approach seems to be that no side can beat the All Blacks with a distributor at 12.
Yet this almost assumes that a ‘distributor’ in the midfield will be a compromise defensively and at the gain line.
Farrell is a vicious competitor and rock solid tackler. While he can take the ball to the gain line hard, his real talent is in bringing big runners into the game in a manner that is not always predictable and exploits weaknesses in defensive patterns.
There was no better example of this than the Saracens versus Clermont European Cup Final. Time and again, Farrell kept the fence guessing and ensured that hard running team mates like Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and Billy Vunipola were cracking open the game.
If Gatland adopts the approach of past Welsh sides and picks Te’o as well as Davies in the midfield then the Lions will have no chance.
The All Blacks are easily good enough to sit back and soak up the battering, just as the Wallabies did at the World Cup with 13 men for much of the game.
On the other hand Farrell’s Saracens have almost created a blue print for how to beat New Zealand. Clermont play a very similar off loading game to the Kiwis with superbly talented back rowers and a mobile front 5.
They score most of their points from broken field play and counter attacks, just like the All Blacks.
In beating Clermont, Farrell was sure to control the tempo of the game. All of Farrell’s options were right, a trait Eddie Jones loves. He ensured the game was played in Clermont’s half.
The exchanges at the breakdown were ferocious, Saracens dominated at scrum time and the ball only went wide after Saracens had drawn in Clermont’s big men.
But when it did go wide there was imagination. There was no one obvious tactic, like a crash ball at 12 or a futile box kick that dominated the game.
Farrell’s passing and carefully judged kicking made it impossible for Clermont to sit back and wait to get Saracens through a breakout counter attack.
It was as if Farrell and Saracens had listened to the ghosts of school boy coaches. Passing was in front of runners. Players did not run one out. Kicking was not aimless. The ball did not go wide until the forwards had earned the right. Who would have thought game of rugby could be won so simply!
Speaking of Saracens, Gatland must surely have watched the European Cup Final and it is difficult to see how many of the 6 Saracens Lions he can leave out of the first choice side.
Farrell along with Mako and Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Kruis and Jamie George must be all at least certainties for the Test match 23.
It makes a lot of sense to maintain that spine for the Lions and preserve combinations where at all possible.
All neutrals and even allot of Kiwis must be hoping that the Lions side is at its strongest for the First Test. If Owen Farrell is not selected, it won’t be.
My Lions XV: McGrath, Owens, Furlong, Itoje, Kruis, Stander, Warburton, Vunipola, Murray, Sexton, Watson, Farrell, Joseph, North, Hogg.
Reserves: M Vunipola, George, Cole, AWJ, O’Brien, Webb, Te’o, Daly.