The Lions ticked more than a few boxes on Saturday as they trounced the Barbarians 59-8 and by eight tries to one in their opening tour game at Hong Kong Stadium, on a night when temperatures hit 32C and humidity was above 80%, conditions described by captain Paul O’Connell as “close to the most difficult I’ve ever played in”.
Warren Gatland’s squad were due in to cooler Perth with temperatures of 11C on arrival, with Sexton saying: “That will be like winter to us after the last few days.”
Yet with the Lions visiting Australia just once every 12 years, it means Sexton is ready to face some heat of a different kind from the Force.
“It’s special to play for the Lions but in many ways it’s even more special to play against them because these boys will never play against the Lions again,” said Sexton, likely to make his first start on Wednesday after a debut off the bench on Saturday.
“There’s a lot of young guys in the (Lions) squad that will sort of think ‘maybe I’ll get another tour’. So from that point of view we’re going to be up against a team that are really motivated.
“They’ve improved massively over the last couple of years and this will be the biggest game of their season in many ways. We’ll have to be ready and balance that with getting ourselves right. We know the guys coming in will probably be a brand new 15, so to get gelled quickly will be tough. But hopefully we can carry over from where we left it tonight.”
Despite succeeding with two from five of his conversions in his 23-minute debut, Sexton was one of a quartet of Irishmen who caught the eye coming off the bench as the Lions overcame the conditions which made even basic handling and passing difficult, to run out comfortable winners. The captain led the charge with the opening try before the Welsh contingent took over, Mike Phillips and Alex Cuthbert grabbing two apiece with Jon Davies, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones also adding scores while starting fly-half Owen Farrell, on an otherwise disappointing night, kicked three penalties and three conversions.
While the Dragons stole the show, it was Sexton and his now former Leinster team-mates Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip as well as fellow replacement half-back Conor Murray who earned the praise of Lions backs coach Rob Howley. “There’s going to be bigger challenges to come but I was impressed by the bench and guys who had only been with us for three or four training sessions. The Irish boys who came on made a huge difference. The pace of the game slowed but the shape that we had didn’t change, which augurs well.”
Murray was perhaps the pick of the bunch, picking up the baton handed to him by starting scrum-half Mike Phillips and not being fazed by the Welsh star’s two-try, man of the match performance to set up Cuthbert’s scores with smart thinking, speed and physicality.
Less enjoyable was the first-half dust-up between Farrell and Barbarians hooker Schalk Brits, who earned a yellow card for a punch to his Saracens team-mate’s face after a tangle at a ruck, the 21-year-old fly-half fortunate not to earning a citing himself after appearing to trip the Springbok in retaliation.
Gatland, who lost hooker Dylan Hartley to a ban on the eve of the tour, understood Farrell’s response but warned more provocation lay ahead.
“It’s pretty hard sometimes when someone lays a punch squarely on the side of your jaw not to react to that,” the Lions head coach said.
“One of the things we are going to emphasise strongly on this tour is to make sure we keep our discipline.
“We had a couple in the last few weeks and sometimes you need to take one for the team. You get whacked and you can’t retaliate because the consequences can be severe. We might find a similar situation in Australia and have to make sure we don’t react.”
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: S Hogg; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (G North, 67), S Maitland; O Farrell (J Sexton, 57), M Phillips (C Murray, 57); M Vunipola (C Healy, 55), R Hibbard (T Youngs, 53), A Jones (M Stevens, 55); R Gray, P O’Connell — captain (A W Jones, 28-36; 63); D Lydiate, J Tipuric, T Faletau (J Heaslip, 63).
BARBARIANS: J Payne; J Rockocoko, E Daly, C Laulala (J Hook, 68), T Ngwenya (M Tindall, 59); N Evans, D Yachvili (K Fotuali’i, 53); P James (D Jones, 58), S Brits (L Ghiraldini, 44), M Castrogiovanni (A Lo Cicero, 68); M Wentzel (J Hamilton, 58), D Mumm; S Manoa (L Ghiraldini, 10-18; I Harinordoquy, 53), S Jones, S Parisse – captain.
Yellow card: Brits 8-18
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)