Andy Farrell believes Sam Warburton is “battle-hardened” and improving day by day as the British and Irish Lions captain inches towards the Test match squad.
Wales flanker Warburton suffered an ankle injury in the tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians and has been scrapping for match sharpness ever since.
The Lions have left Warburton out of Tuesday’s squad to face the Chiefs in Hamilton, however, and now he is edging ever closer to a spot in Saturday’s line-up for the first All Blacks Test.
Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau have excelled as a back-row combination, but Cardiff star Warburton could yet even squeeze into the first Test starting XV.
“Sam by his own account will tell you that he might have been a little rusty at the start, but he’s getting better and better every day,” said Farrell.
“His body’s in good condition, and he’s battle-hardened like the rest of them.”
Leigh Halfpenny is continuing through return-to-play protocols after a suspected head injury but Lions assistant coach Farrell believes the Wales full-back remains on course to face New Zealand on Saturday.
Fly-half Owen Farrell is now expected to be fit after a thigh concern too, leaving the Lions approaching full strength for the Test series opener.
“We don’t see too much of a problem with that for Leigh, it’s just the process we have to go through,” said Andy Farrell.
“And Owen seems to be all good, that seems to have settled down.
“The boys who aren’t playing the Chiefs will have a light hit-out today (Monday), an orientation day for the rest of the week, and Owen seems fine enough to take part in that.”
Defence coach Farrell believes the Lions are forging a bullish identity as the first Test against the back-to-back world champions hurtles into view.
He tipped the Lions to be “a hell of a side” come Saturday’s Test series opener at Auckland’s Eden Park.
“I’m sure you’ve seen some physical hits, some strong defensive breakdown work from us,” said Farrell.
“We’ve put some pressure on the ball, so we’ve earned the right to give line speed.
“And on the back of that we’ve also been good at adjusting. So again we’re still developing that, but it’s coming good.
“The players enjoy the physical defence, they buzz off one another. They want to show their intent, and that’s building nicely.
“Look at our squad, the All Blacks are the best team in the world and rightly so, they’re an unbelievable side. But our squad is full of winners, it’s full of guys who are used to winning and know how to win.
“They’re in a new side that’s been developing over the last four weeks. And I think we’re going to be a hell of a side.
“We play this game on Tuesday, hopefully we’ll get the result we’re after and show improvement again.
“Then we’ll go down to Auckland, there’s a sea of red there. Everything builds up.
“The strength of the collective group is going to be phenomenal. Let’s see what we can bring when we bring that togetherness.”
Farrell admitted he feels the Lions have been penalised for offside “a little harshly” in several matches on tour – but challenged his players to time their blitz defence to perfection.
“It’s been a little bit harshly at times, I’ve been looking for it and I’m still looking for it now,” said Farrell of several offside penalties against the Lions.
“But it’s up to us to show a good picture. There’s a correlation of what has to happen when the ball leaves the ground. The offside line ends when the nine picks up the ball.
“We want to make sure we show a clear picture. We’ve got good referees going forward in the rest of the matches.
“It’s pretty obvious we want to play with line speed in defence.”