THE CHAMPIONS CUP semi-finals will naturally give the Lions coaches an opportunity to see some of their 41-man squad in high-pressure environments this weekend, but there will also be concerns in the back of their heads too.
Warren Gatland and his coaching team will be fascinated to see how the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Owen Farrell, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and others perform, though worries about injuries are very real.
Gatland has already admitted that he is concerned about Conor Murray’s health, with the scrum-half issued an ultimatum to prove his fitness, and the physical nature of semi-final weekend means others are at risk.
The players themselves must be hoping that they won’t be the unfortunate one cruelly cut down by injury before the Lions tour even starts, but assistant coach Andy Farrell doesn’t think it will have an effect on proceedings.
“I suppose they’re the best of the best and when you get these types of players they’re the ultimate professional and you would expect them to deal with that,” said Farrell.
“They would be elated now that that’s done and dusted and out of the way. Quite a lot of them have got a big weekend coming up and they need to park it and go full steam ahead into what’s coming up because we want guys getting on the plane in good form.
“There might be a few ups and downs with results but we want guys buzzing getting on that plane.”
Farrell said the Lions coaches will not have much direct interaction with the players between now and the end of their club and provincial seasons, allowing them to focus on their day jobs before turning thoughts to New Zealand.
The players who aren’t involved in domestic semi-finals and finals will convene in Wales and then Carton House in Ireland for training camps in the two weeks before departure, but some will join up with the Lions only days before flying out to New Zealand.
For those men, club form will be pivotal in convincing Gatland and the other coaches of their starting Test credentials, although Farrell said that one game won’t decide anything.
“We always are [watching],” said Ireland defence coach Farrell. “You’re looking all the way through the Six Nations but there isn’t one moment where I would say, ‘That’s it, he needed to do that’.
“We need to get the feeling from all the lads together and see what works and what’s right for the British & Irish Lions.”
Farrell will have a particularly keen interest in Munster’s meeting with Saracens tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium, given that he has worked for both sides and also the fact that his son, Owen, will wear the English side’s 10 shirt.
Farrell was previously an assistant coach at Saracens and also joined Munster in a short-term consultancy capacity last season. The 41-year-old defence specialist is not quite willing to make a call.
“What a game that’s going to be and the game the day after is going to be just as exciting as well,” said Farrell. “Two sides that are very confident in the way that they’re playing at the minute. Two sides that seem to know and be comfortable in what they’re about, as men and as a team.
“Saracens have been masters over the last period of time of playing the game in front of them, no matter where they’re playing but I’m sure they’re aware of the army of red that’s going to come to the Aviva and a Munster side that is bang in form at this moment in time.
“I wouldn’t call it, I definitely wouldn’t.”
Among the Lions-tinged confrontations will be the likely meetings of Munster’s Peter O’Mahony with Saracens pair Maro Itoje and George Kruis.
Donnacha Ryan, left out of the Lions squad, is likely to have a say in the battle up front, of course, but O’Mahony has been the key figure in Munster’s lineout in recent times and will relish taking on Kruis, Itoje and co. in the air tomorrow.
Farrell has seen up close how impactful the Cork man can be from the blindside flank, having admired O’Mahony’s performance against England on the final day of the championship – a display that went a long way to ensuring his Lions spot.
“Everyone knows there’s a performance like that in Peter,” said Farrell. “He’s a top professional and a guy that’s been unlucky with injuries in the last period of time.
“You could see a build-up through the Six Nations of Pete being fit and then he had a little hamstring tweak which sat him out for a week or two. Then he accepted being on the bench but you could see he wasn’t accepting being on the bench and then there was a build and he got his spot right at the last moment.
“He was ready to perform because of the preparation and how diligent he’d been throughout the whole of the Six Nations.
“He was fantastic in making sure that the team prepared properly, to be the best that they could be and he was selfless in that preparation and I think that helped him in his own preparation to be right for the full 80 minutes.”
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