IT was four years ago in Australia that Johnny Sexton guided the British and Irish Lions to their series victory over the Wallabies. Tomorrow the Ireland fly-half will be asked to keep the show on the road ahead of next week’s opening Test against New Zealand.
On a cold but sunny Thursday afternoon in Rotorua, Sexton, 31, had stepped off the training field believing he had to make the most of his start ahead of the benched Owen Farrell in tomorrow’s mouthwatering clash with the Maori All Blacks. The Dubliner had come into this 2017 tour short on game time having played only three times for Leinster since the Six Nations campaign and the rustiness showed with an underwhelming start in the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3.
Yet Sexton has grown steadily since then, putting in a more encouraging turn off the bench as an early injury replacement for Dan Biggar against the Blues and then prompting Lions head coach Warren Gatland to suggest the fly-half had rediscovered his “mojo” after replacing centre Jon Davies 28 minutes into Saturday’s game against the Crusaders in Christchurch. Sexton’s introduction pushed Farrell from fly-half to inside centre and the pair’s successful first pairing as a midfield axis put some flesh on the bones of those who believed it was a play-making partnership simply waiting to happen.
“Johnny needs more rugby and we’re building on that,” Gatland said yesterday before news of Farrell’s withdrawal was released.
“He was really good off the bench (last weekend) and the combination of 10 and 12 (with Farrell) was pretty seamless.
“He was just down a little on confidence but he’s got a bit of his mojo back, and we wanted to give him a start against the Maori.”
Yet we will not be seeing that partnership reprised against the Maori now, Farrell withdrawn from the bench after suffering a mild grade one thigh strain in training yesterday. With a minimum recovery time of seven to 10 days, the Saracens and England star must now have to be considered as a serious doubt for the opening Test at Eden Park in Auckland a week tomorrow.
That makes Sexton’s starting appearance in the Lions number 10 jersey this weekend even more of a major moment for the Ireland man to step up and prove he still has the authority to put in a command performance against the Maori.
He certainly possesses it on the training field with fellow 2013 back Jon Davies comparing the present day Sexton favourably to the one of four years ago, when the Leinster fly-half was master of all he surveyed. “I think he’s very similar,” Davies said. “He demands very high standards in training and he expects everyone to know their role and he puts pressure on the backline. I think it’s great for the team.”
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