Johnny Sexton’s fitness a concern but form makes him a live option for Lions

Gregor Townsend declared Sexton to be “very much in the mix”
Johnny Sexton’s fitness a concern but form makes him a live option for Lions

While Johnny Sexton has been in the wars this season, he has also shone on the pitch. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

He turns 36 this summer and was last seen leaving the field at Sandy Park last Saturday with an injury, but Johnny Sexton is still “banging down the door” to book his place in the British and Irish Lions squad due to tour South Africa.

Sexton’s injury profile has been a concern this season. His early exit during last weekend’s Champions Cup defeat of Exeter Chiefs was just the latest example of a day being cut short for club or country due to fitness issues.

However, Sexton has also been showing some excellent form when on the field. He is a serial winner, a former world player of the year and a man who has long since declared an ambition to take part in what would be his third Lions tour.

Neil Jenkins, unveiled on Tuesday as Warren Gatland’s kicking coach and a former out-half who played a key role on the 1997 and 2001 tours to South Africa and Australia, certainly seems smitten by what the Dubliner has to offer.

“He’s been an incredible player, hasn’t he? Watching him this year, watching closely because when we played Ireland he was a big threat to us… A fantastic player for Leinster and Ireland and he has been for the Lions as well.

“We’ve got Alun Wyn as well, who is 35: these guys seem to get better and better. It’s incredible what they actually do, especially with the demands of the modern game too.

“Johnny has been incredible. It’s no surprise to me that he’s banging down the door to get into the Lions tour. He’s a fantastic player and he’s having a decent season.”

Robin McBryde, who will transfer his work as Leinster’s forwards coach over to the same brief with the Lions, declared that Sexton is playing as well as ever, but Gregor Townsend will have a larger say on this than either of his Welsh counterparts.

The Scotland head coach was a 10 of rare vintage himself, with his country and with the Lions. He declared Sexton to be “very much in the mix”, while adding that out-half is a position boasting contenders at the top of their game and at a good age.

“Finn Russell is 28, I think,” said Townsend. “Dan Biggar is a bit older and [Owen] Farrell is a similar age. Sexton is older, but with a lot of experience, who played really well against Scotland. So there’s real depth there at 10, with plenty more discussions to come.”

Depth is one thing, but the lack of a standout contender is a bit of a worry for such a pivotal position.

McBryde only laughed when asked how many Leinster players he had championed in Monday’s first selection meeting. However, he did go as far as to reveal that the likes of Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher’s names had been mentioned.

James Ryan’s too, although that should go without saying.

Ryan and Doris are currently sidelined with concussion issues — and it was a head injury that ended Sexton’s day early in Devon — but McBryde was wary of landing too much pressure on young enough shoulders for now.

“With regards to James and Caelan, they’re working their way back to fitness, so hopefully we’ll see over the next couple of weeks that they have an opportunity to stake their claim. But both of them were involved in discussions yesterday as potential candidates. At the end of the day, if you perform, if you play well, that’s as much as you can do.

“I wouldn’t want to encourage them to worry too much about the Lions selection, especially with those individuals with what’s left of our season with Leinster. We’ve got an opportunity to create something special and, if we’re successful in doing that, then it goes hand in hand with each other regarding staking a claim.”

Leinster’s season now hinges on the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final away to La Rochelle three weekends from now. It will be the last opportunity — and what an opportunity — for candidates to raise their hands before the final selection meeting is held.

It makes for an ideal shop window, not least when set against the fact that a Saracens side with so many potential tourists will still be languishing in the second tier of the English game and there is no Premiership, Scottish or Welsh sides in the last four of the Champions Cup.

Townsend did big up the value of the local derbies coming on stream in the Rainbow Cup, and McBryde threw in that the staff have spoken about players who are not current internationals, but the majority of the stock will be sourced from form shown in Test colours.

“As coaches, we are probably influenced by what we see the previous weekend but, when you go into more depth discussions, you look back at the Six Nations and games played over the last two years, including the World Cup.

“You also look at what players have done on previous Lions tours. Warren and Neil have coached a lot of them on a Lions tour and know how well they interacted and performed as individuals while also helping the team. That will put a few players in a strong position to go again as they’ve been very good Lions in the past.”

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