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Pairing up Sexton and Farrell is a bold call from Warren Gatland

The two playmakers will start alongside each other in the second Test against the All Blacks.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

THE TEMPTATION HAD been there before the first Test, but Warren Gatland resisted.

Now, with the Test series against the All Blacks on the line in Wellington, the Lions head coach has teamed up Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell at out-half and inside centre.

Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell dejected Sexton and Farrell finished the first Test alongside each other. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It’s a roll of the dice from Gatland and some will argue that it goes against everything he has previously done as a coach – consistently backing gainline merchants in the 12 shirt – but it should be viewed as a bold, progressive move.

While the weather conditions at Westpac Stadium on Saturday may mean that Sexton and Farrell’s dual kicking threat will be more important, their ability to distribute should also mean that glaring opportunities are less likely be spurned with ball in hand.

There is risk here, of course. Sexton and Farrell have never started a game together before. They did show a promising understanding in their 50-minute stint against the Crusaders on this tour, while they finished the first Test alongside each other.

But even there, we saw signs that they are still getting to know each other, as one Sexton pass to Farrell went to deck, the Englishman seemingly expecting Sexton to go out the back door with his pass.

Sexton was sharp off the bench in that opening Test and with Farrell not quite as his best, Gatland may have considered a straight swap for Wellington. Instead, Ben Te’o misses out and we end up with the 10-12 pairing that so many – including the All Blacks – had expected in the months leading up to the Test series.

“From an attacking perspective, I think it’s giving more of an attack option with that combination,” said Gatland after naming his team.

“It’s just giving us two ball players and two kicking options on the right foot at first and second receiver, as well as left-foot options with Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly. We’re happy with the mix.

“One of the concerns we do have is the weather on Saturday night and we may have to change tactically how we play and then we’ve defensively got to do a job on Sonny Bill Williams.

Sonny Bill Williams with Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton The Lions' 10-12 pairing will have their hands full with Sonny Bill Williams. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He came pretty direct against us and got a good couple of offloads away, so it’s important that we shut him down.”

That threat from Williams has been pointed to as one of the potential weaknesses of the Lions’ new 10-12 pairing, with Te’o a much more powerful specimen than either Sexton or Farrell.

It seems certain that the All Blacks will look for change from the Lions’ inside midfield.

“That’s a strength of his [Te'o's] and it was part of the game plan to run down that 10 channel,” said All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown of the change. “They have two 10s there this week and that could be something we look to expose.”

Warning served. But Sexton and Farrell are far from being weak defenders, with both of them bringing highly aggressive and proactive defensive mindsets. Expect to see Farrell lead the linespeed and attempt to shut Williams down early.

“We allowed him a bit too much time on the ball last week,” said Gatland. “I can’t remember Sonny Bill passing the ball in the game [he passed seven times], but he got some good gainline for them and got a couple of offloads away, got them some front-foot ball.

“We need to make sure that our linespeed in terms of stopping that doesn’t allow him to be as effective as it was. We’ve been working pretty hard on that this week.”

Sexton and Farrell’s tackle technique may actually prove useful in negating Williams’ offloading threat, with both of the Lions’ playmakers favouring an upper-body focus in the tackle.

Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton celebrate winning Farrell and Sexton combined superbly against the Crusaders. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That does bring the danger of being bumped off by the powerful Williams, but the fiery Sexton and Farrell will relish the chance to wrap up one of the All Blacks’ key ball carriers.

All Blacks fullback Isreal Dagg, meanwhile, knows that he will be kept busy in the backfield after slotting into the 15 shirt in Ben Smith’s absence.

“They are both great kickers and they have a lot of great vision,” said Dagg. “They have two guys who can play either side of the ruck so as a fullback you have to be working pretty hard either side. It gives them a few options.”

It’s Sexton and Farrell’s ability to unlock defences with sharp passing and excellent decision-making that is most exciting for the Lions, though.

“I guess Te’o is probably going to punch the line a bit more,” said Lienert-Brown of the new threat.

“With the two 10s at first and second, they will probably bring a bit more razzle. It means a different mindset in defence – they are going to be showing different pictures so we have to be prepared to look for those.”

If the Lions were ever going to pull this off in Wellington, they were going to have to throw something different at the All Blacks, and Gatland has done as much by backing Sexton and Farrell together.

Two of the strongest characters in this Lions squad, the playmaking pair will have total belief that they can lead the turnaround.

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Murray Kinsella

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