Johnny Sexton: Lions Tour 'was one that got away'

To some, they defied the odds and evaded certain humiliation, but to Johnny Sexton the drawn British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand is ‘one that got away’.
Johnny Sexton: Lions Tour 'was one that got away'

Warren Gatland’s Lions beat the world champions in the second test after being swatted aside in the tour opener, and then drew the dramatic final test in Auckland to share the contest.

The performances and overall result were widely celebrated in the northern hemisphere, with many former Lions claiming the tour saved the tourists from an uncertain future.

But, sitting down in Dublin to assess the tour for the first time since his return home, Sexton, in typical fashion, was underwhelmed by the achievement of ‘not losing’.

“I feel like it was one that got away,” he said, “when you draw, it is an anti-climax. You’re not too happy; not too sad. The fact we had such a good group of players — off the pitch we got on so well — meant we were able to enjoy the few days.

“It is only after your holiday you look back on it. I thought we should have won it if we had played at our best in that third test. It is disappointing.

“At the same time, a lot of people are proud of what we did down there. We can take satisfaction from that.”

Sexton knows the draw can be twisted to suit any narrative, but there’s no hiding the fact the Leinster outhalf was underwhelmed.

He had a mixed tour on a personal level, bouncing back from missing the first test in favour of Andy Farrell, to start the second and third test, but even that was not enough to colour the tour as a roaring success.

“We can say we were unbeaten in New Zealand, but we all went down there to try and win a series,” he said. “Even in that first test...the way they scored a couple of tries and we didn’t take our chances. We will look back on it with fond memories because of the bond we had among the group and the great friends that we made. From a rugby point of view, it was one that got away.”

The second test, when he started with Farrell, the Saracens and England star outside him, remains a standout memory, as the Lions took control late on following the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams, the All Blacks centre.

“That was definitely the highlight, getting us back into it, making for a big third test,” Sexton said.

Gatland was praised for his decision to switch Farrell to his unfavoured inside centre position, allowing the Ireland No10 to start. After a rocky start, Sexton showed his class.

“The more we got together the more I was able to influence things,” he said, admitting the first game on tour against the NZ Barbarians was the ‘worst’ he’d ever felt in a game, coming just two days after their arrival in New Zealand.

“The more cohesive the team was the easier my job was. It was a slow start (but) I built into it and I thought I played well enough in the Crusaders and Maori games. I was disappointed to miss out on the first test but happy to get back in and reasonably happy with how things went in the second and third tests.

“I wouldn’t say it’s [Warren] making all the decisions, he probably has the last say but there are a good few coaches involved in it. They decided to go one way for the first Test, so I just had to keep training as hard as I could, keep doing my bit, not get too down and realise there were two more Tests to come. Thankfully, I got the nod for the last two.”

Sexton, 32, jokes his wife would ‘kill him’ if he signed up for another Lions tour, but there’s still a significant hunger burning inside.

There have been no trophies raised since his return from France to Leinster, and still no World Cup successes to speak of. With another semi-successful Lions tour under his belt, now is the time to tick some other boxes.

“Last season was a disappointment in many ways so I’m hungry and want to keep going,” he said. “I can’t say how long for because no-one knows. You see guys like Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer still going to their 40th and Rory Best playing on a Lions tour, turning 35 this month. It gives you hope if you look after yourself. You’ve got people coming in keeping you fresh and hungry; Stuart [Lancaster] at Leinster, guys coming in with Ireland and Joe [Schmidt] still being there, Andy Farrell came in last year really bringing more to the party. We’ll see how long, I don’t know...”

Connacht have confirmed the signing of former Ulster winger Rory Scholes for this season. Scholes moves from Edinburgh where he spent last season having previously scored five tries in 26 appearances for Ulster. The Belfast-born 24-year-old made nine appearances for the Ireland U20s in the 2013 season, scoring 33 points in the process.

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