Lions Tour: 5 players to watch

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Following years of anticipation the wait is almost at an end for fans of the British & Irish Lions.

On Saturday, Warren Gatland’s men will run out in Whangarei to kick off their tour against a NZ Provincial Barbarians side. It is a match they are expected to win at a canter.

From there things will undoubtedly heat up as they take on all five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises, the New Zealand Maori and target a Test series win against the All Blacks.

But who will be the key players on such a mammoth tour? ESPN looks at five players who could have a big role to play over the next five weeks.

Taulupe Faletau

Faletau is expected to start the first Test at No. 8 following Billy Vunipola’s injury. David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

The absence of Billy Vunipola on the tour has made Faletau integral to the Lions’ hopes of winning the Test series. The Welshman, one of the best No. 8s in the world in his own right, can be devastating with ball in hand and finished the domestic season with Bath in fine form.

Faletau knows Gatland’s game plan inside-out having played under him for six years with Wales. He knows what it feels like to score a try against the All Blacks at Eden Park, too, although he will hope the Lions can hold on to any lead they manage to build having tasted three defeats in New Zealand last June. Picked to start the first match, Lions fans will hope he comes through unscathed.

Owen Farrell

Farrell could feature for the Lions at 10 or 12 against New Zealand. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Victory in the Test series in Australia four years ago was built on the reliable boot of Leigh Halfpenny, and that is a responsibility Farrell is set to take on in New Zealand. The Saracens fly-half has scored 260 points in 17 England appearances since Eddie Jones took charge, and will be tasked with ensuring the scoreboard keeps ticking along in the tourists’ favour.

Farrell, though, is much more than a trusty boot and his link play with his fellow three-quarters — whoever they may be — as well as his tactical kicking game will be crucial to ensuring the Lions play in the right areas of the field. A physical presence in defence too.

Robbie Henshaw

Henshaw, left, train alongside Lions and Ireland teammate Jonathan Sexton. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Henshaw knows what it takes to beat the All Blacks. It was his bulldozing run off the back of a lineout with five minutes left in Chicago last November that finally put away New Zealand’s challenge and confirmed Ireland’s famous win.

His physical attacking skills, allied to committed work in defence — he made 12 tackles in Chicago — should make him an ideal cog in the Warrenball machine. He might have a sense of unfinished business too, having limped out of the return clash in Dublin after just 10 minutes as the All Blacks exacted their revenge.

Maro Itoje

Itoje, right, works out alongside Joe Marler, left, in Ireland last week. David Rogers/Getty Images

What Itoje lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in physicality and skill. The battle for supremacy in the second row will be key to the outcome of the Test series. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are possibly the most daunting combination in world rugby but it is a position in which the Lions have depth too.

Itoje will not back down from the challenge of facing Retallick and Whitelock — and why would he? The Saracens lock has won 11 of his 12 England Tests, and his all-court game has seen him collect almost as many man of the match awards as caps.

Liam Williams

Williams scored a try on his final Scarlets appearance as the region won the PRO12 title. Ashley Crowden – CameraSport via Getty Images

Gatland may feel differently, but from the outside looking in the back three is one area where it would seem Test shirts are very much up for grabs. Williams will surely feel he can do enough over the next three weeks to take one, too.

He is on form, having scored in the PRO12 final to help Scarlets record an impressive, and unlikely, win over Munster last Saturday. He is also well-versed in Gatland’s system at both wing and fullback, and highlighted his attacking potential during Wales’ tour of New Zealand last summer, scoring in the Wellington Test as the tourists pushed their hosts close.

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