Warren Gatland’s reaction to Jonathan Sexton’s injury troubles raised a few eyebrows back in December but the Lions coach offered a more measured view when asked about the latest fitness issues for the man who was his key playmaker in Australia in 2013, writes Brendan O’Brien.
The Kiwi has a habit of merging one unfinished sentence and stream of thought into another, and it can sometimes make for some confusion, but he was crystal clear eight weeks ago in declaring the importance to Sexton of a good Six Nations run and the pressure he was under to be fit and in form.
There was a warning late last year too: Namely that the quality of the Lions squad was such that players accustomed to being parachuted back into their national sides when available again, like Sexton, would have to prepare for the possibility of non-involvement after recovery from injury with the Lions.
Sexton has already been ruled out of Saturday’s opener against Scotland at Murrayfield and the question now is how much more of the tournament he stands to miss with the calf injury that has taken over from the hamstring injuries which ruined the months of November and December.
Gatland, who was in Carton House with Joe Schmidt’s squad earlier this week, has been consistent in his praise for Sexton the player but he did make a point again yesterday of referring to the deeply attritional nature of a Lions tour as he prepares his plans for next June.
The Lions face a ridiculously arduous five weeks in New Zealand with three Tests against the All Blacks, a meeting with all five of the Super Rugby franchises and then other assignments with the New Zealand Barbarians and the Maori All Blacks thrown in for good measure.
The plan is for a squad of 37, maybe 38, and with a split of 20 forwards and 17 backs. That is significantly slimmer than the 44 (and three more subject to fitness) named by Clive Woodward the last time the Lions toured the country in 2005.
Any stragglers will have to be left behind.
“The next few months are important for him, aren’t they?” said the Lions head coach. “It’s not just Johnny. There are a number of players from the four nations that have had injuries and that have found it difficult to put a consecutive part of the season together.
“Johnny has been unfortunate in the last couple of seasons in that he has picked up a few injuries, a couple of knocks to the head as well, so for me I’m hoping that he gets back to fitness as quickly as possible and starts to play in that Irish Six Nations team and performs well.
“We all know how good he is and that was a conversation I had with Joe. He is a big part of driving that Irish team and a big part in their success but it is good for Paddy Jackson as he improves and gets some experience but Johnny is pretty important. Not just for the way he controls the game but in what he brings to the team and the best he brings out of the players around him as well. Look, he’ll be disappointed himself that he’s not quite right and hopefully in the next few weeks he’ll start to get some game time.”
Gatland will see all of the four home nations play at least three times in the course of the championship and, with the Ireland-England clash his game of choice for round five, the players from both those countries will get to audition for him four times in all.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner