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Two of Warren Gatland's key Lions finally pair up on Saturday

Conor Murray and Owen Farrell start in the halfbacks against the Crusaders.

Murray Kinsella reports from Christchurch

IT’S ONLY TAKEN three games but there was a relief for many Lions fans in seeing Conor Murray and Owen Farrell’s names alongside each other in Warren Gatland’s XV for the first time on this tour.

These two men were always going to be key players in New Zealand and with Billy Vunipola missing, it looks like they could well go on to be the two most influential Lions of the Test series.

Owen Farrell Farrell is favourite to wear 10 in the Tests. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Nobody is writing off Johnny Sexton or Dan Biggar just yet, but Farrell is the definite favourite to wear the Lions’ 10 shirt for the Tests.

And while Rhys Webb is a genuine contender at at scrum-half, and had an impressive outing against the Blues, Murray remains the logical choice to pull on the nine jersey at Eden Park on 24 June.

Backing up their reputations on the pitch against the Crusaders on Saturday [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sports] will be important, but Murray and Farrell are the kind of characters who will be betting on themselves to give this Lions tour a major kickstart.

The pair of them toured Australia in 2013 but they found their place as back-up players, with Farrell benching behind Johnny Sexton for all three Tests, and Murray providing cover for Mike Phillips for the closing two Tests.

Four years on, they are in similar positions to each other again, only this time as the popular choices to start in the halfbacks. Their respect for each other is not only based on their respective qualities as rugby players, but also that journey they have both taken.

“We have not had too long working together, but he is a brilliant player and someone I have admired for a long time,” says 25-year-old Farrell. “I look forward to getting out there and playing with him.”

Murray, the elder statesman at the age of 28, has naturally noticed changes in Farrell since the 2013 tour, with the Saracens man having enjoyed huge success in those four years.

“It’s a long time in sport and look at what Owen has done over that period of time. It’s spectacular, and he’s really grown and matured as a player,” says Murray.

Conor Murray tackled by Owen Farrell Murray and Farrell in action against each other. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve definitely noticed [a change]. He’s a more confident player, confident in his own ability, in terms of what he’s done and what he’s capable of as a player, so he’s definitely started off as more of a leader than maybe he was in 2013.”

While Sexton remains a highly influential member of the Lions squad and will always provide tactical direction and ideas to any group he is part of, it appears that Farrell has become the go-to man already.

His impact off the bench against the Provincial Barbarians was effective and composed, while he clearly has the respect of the rest of the Lions squad.

Getting Farrell onto the pitch on Saturday should see the Lions’ attack shift into a higher gear, with his triple threat of kick-pass-run being matched to an intelligent tactical brain.

“Rugby is a physical game, but ultimately you want to be physical so that you can play to space,” says Farrell of his approach with the Lions. “It’s about momentum for us. If you get momentum, it’s easier to be able to play to space.

“We want to be able to move the ball whether the space be through the middle because that’s how they defend, whether it be around the edges – they’re the decisions that you’ve got to make after every ruck. That’s what rugby is about.”

Murray will provide a sniping and carrying threat of his own around the fringes, as well as kicking competently, and defending with power and clever decision-making, but he will also look to give Farrell clean service against the best team in Super Rugby.

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How the high-profile duo combine and spark off each other will have a telling impact on this Lions tour and if their obvious strengths can marry into a complete halfback pairing, Gatland’s side will be in good shape.

Conor Murray Murray is a mature figure in the Lions squad. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Murray, of course, is more accustomed to playing with Sexton outside him but there are many similarities between the Leinster man and Farrell, meaning Murray shouldn’t have too much adapting to do.

“There’s not really differences, I’m looking for similarities,” says Murray. “Owen is a real leader like Johnny is and they’re a real driving force behind our game plan.

“I’ve been asked about Johnny in the lead-up to this tour and we understand each other well, and that’s the challenge now; to get to know Owen a little more than I did in 2013, to understand him a little bit more.

“To understand what he’s looking for from me and it’s basically just spending time together and getting to know each other.”

There are lots of reasons to look forward to Saturday in Christchurch but seeing Farrell and Murray combine is chief among them.

Gatland will be hoping it’s a match made in heaven.

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