The British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand is on the precipice of disaster after news that premier fly-half Owen Farrell is a major doubt for the first test after suffering a quadriceps strain. The England half-back had been named on the bench for the clash with the Maori All Blacks, the last opportunity for the first choice 23 to impress before the series kicks off in Auckland on 24 June, but has been withdrawn just hours after the team was confirmed.
Farrell had started just one of the Lions' opening four matches, playing 124 minutes on tour prior to picking up the injury. He was largely expected to start at number 10 against the world champions at Eden Park ahead of Ireland's Johnny Sexton, however the match against the Maori would have given coach Warren Gatland an opportunity to observe a possible 10-12 partnership between the pair. Wales' Dan Biggar comes in for Farrell on the bench where captain Sam Warburton is also included.
The out-of-form Sexton starts at the Rotorua International Stadium in tandem with fellow countryman Conor Murray at scrum half while Pete O'Mahony has been named as captain for a game which will represent the clearest indicator yet as to the Lions' chances of staging a first series win over the Kiwis since 1971.
Medical staff have classed the injury as a grade one strain, which would normally require 10 days of recovery before a full return to competition. Farrell therefore faces a race against time to be fit for the first test in nine days time and the news is the latest setback on what has been a nightmare tour for the Lions.
British and Irish Lions fixtures [8:35am BST kick-off time unless otherwise stated]
Saturday 17 June – New Zealand Maori – International Stadium, Rotorua
Tuesday 20 June – Chiefs– Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Saturday 24 June – New Zealand– First Test, Eden Park, Auckland
Tuesday 27 June – Hurricanes – Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday 1 July – New Zealand – Second Test, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday 8 July – New Zealand – Third Test, Eden Park, Auckland
Number eight Billy Vunipola pulled out of the squad prior to travelling to New Zealand due to a shoulder injury, while Six Nations player of the tournament Stuart Hogg was ruled out this week with a cheek injury. Though Farrell's future on the tour is not in any immediate doubt, he faces missing what could be one of the defining games of his rugby career.
On the field, the Lions' fortunes have been similarly torturous having lost two of their four warm-up games. Victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians was followed by defeat to the Super 12 side the Blues, before a narrow win against the Crusaders. The latest mid-week game saw them defeated 23-22 by the Highlanders in Dunedin, raising questions over whether they can compete with Steve Hansen's star-studded All Blacks across three games.