Farrell's leadership quality impresses Lions boss Gatland

·3-min read
Major influence - England captain Owen Farrell will be on his third British and Irish Lions tour when the combined side travel to South Africa

Owen Farrell may be on the bench for the British and Irish Lions warm-up match against Japan in Edinburgh on Saturday, but coach Warren Gatland expects him to be a key figure in the combined side's upcoming tour of South Africa.

England captain Farrell topped a poll among his fellow Lions squad members to select a leadership group for the eight-match trip, which culminates with three Tests against the world champion Springboks in July and August.

This weekend's match is a landmark fixture for the Lions as it is both the first time they have played in Scotland and the first occasion they have taken on Japan.

And while there are no England players in a Lions starting XV for the first time in more than 70 years, four Scotland internationals -- wing Duhan van der Merwe, flanker Hamish Watson and props Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson will be involved from the kick-off at Murrayfield.

England finished a lowly fifth in this season's Six Nations but Farrell still finds himself providing fly-half cover against Japan for Wales' Dan Biggar, having helped Saracens return to the Premiership six days ago after they were relegated last season for salary-cap breaches.

"I've spoken to Owen and the chat was about it not being the greatest Six Nations, but we picked him on the leadership and experience that he can bring to the group," Gatland told reporters on Tuesday after announcing his team to play Japan.

"He's a fantastic competitor and what he has achieved and his success speaks for itself."

- 'Competitor' -

The New Zealander, in charge of his third Lions tour, having selected Farrell for both a victorious 2013 series in Australia and a drawn 2017 campaign against the All Blacks, added: "I thought it was interesting that he ended up with the most votes out of anyone in the leadership group, so that speaks volumes for the respect in which he is held by all the players in the group, not just the England players.

"Knowing him as a competitor he will go out and make the most of his opportunities and I expect him to have a great tour."

Alun Wyn Jones, the tour captain, has featured in the Lions' last nine Tests stretching back to the 2009 series in South Africa.

Whether the 35-year-old Wales lock, international rugby union's most-capped player of all time, makes it 10 Tests in a row for the Lions this weekend is uncertain as it has yet to be decided if the Japan match will be classed as a full international.

But Gatland had no doubts about the status of the match given he had been in charge of Wales at a 2019 World Cup where hosts Japan made the last eight.

"We are playing an international side, so for me, we are playing a Test match... We are preparing to play a quality international team and we thoroughly respect them -- they made the World Cup quarter-finals."