Warren Gatland backs Owen Farrell to confound critics on Lions tour

Winning a Lions Test series is the ultimate challenge but flying out with a fully-fit 37-man tour squad in scintillating form remains almost as tricky an assignment.

While Warren Gatland has been fine-tuning the details of his Australian campaign for months, he is constantly at the mercy of the fates and already has a few niggling concerns before his side's departure for Hong Kong and Australia in less than a fortnight's time.

The first is the physical state of the team's Irish warrior Brian O'Driscoll, who lasted only 13 minutes of Leinster's RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow at the weekend before departing with back trouble. Both Leinster and Gatland remain optimistic that rest and an epidural injection will ease his back spasms but the 2005 Lions captain was unable to travel to London for an introductory get-together with his colleagues at Syon Park, let alone lift a bulging suitcase full of shiny new tour kit.

Gatland also has his fingers crossed regarding the shaky form of Owen Farrell, one of just two specialist fly-halves in the squad and the son of his assistant Andy Farrell. Two sub-par performances for Saracens in high-profile semi-finals is not necessarily a sign of things to come this summer but amber warning lights are now flashing. The head coach, already short of cover at No10, insists the Englishman will ultimately come good.

"It's been tough for Owen but he has shown in the past that he is one of those players who responds really well to any adversity or criticism and comes back fighting better and stronger," said Gatland. "That is one of the reasons why we like him so much. We're sure he'll react really well to that criticism from outside and I'm sure he will do well on tour. The Saracens result also gives us an opportunity to work with him in the next couple of weeks prior to the first game."

Jonny Sexton's ongoing commitments with Leinster has ensured Farrell will be the starting Lions No10 for the tour's opening game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June, by no means a low-key start for a young player enduring a sudden crisis of confidence.

Gatland, though, argues that the 22 players heading off to the Vale of Glamorgan to train this week will potentially have an advantage over the other 15, primarily from Leinster and Leicester, who are still busy with their clubs. Not that the Lions will be moaning endlessly about the acute shortage of pre-tour time spent together. "One of the main policies on this tour is that we're not seen by the Aussies to be a bunch of whinging poms. We've just got to make the most of it."

It will still be a nervous fortnight. Cruelly, history suggests one or two individuals will be injured between now and the Lions' departure date on 27 May but Gatland has advised those involved in major finals not to hold anything back. "There is a bit of trepidation about not picking up injuries but if you go in with that attitude and try and look after yourself there is more chance of picking up an injury. The advice to those players is to go hell for leather."

Pity the management, even so, as key men like Sexton brace themselves for this Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup final and the Pro12 final the following weekend. "In the back of your mind you do think about injuries," admitted the Leinster fly-half, keen to work with Farrell having met him fleetingly only twice before. "I remember Tómas O'Leary going down injured in 2009 and in the back of your mind you're praying that doesn't happen. But once you get out on the pitch your competitiveness comes through and it's the last thing you think about."

Whether the Lions will see much of the Wallaby full-back Kurtley Beale, meanwhile, remains in doubt after the Australian Rugby Union announced the 24-year-old has taken "an indefinite leave of absence" from the game to seek "assistance in resolving personal issues". The troubled Beale has been involved in several alcohol-related incidents and, according to the ARU, has now "voluntarily entered a private health facility to undertake counselling".

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Monday 13th May 2013 21.59 Europe/London

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