'There have been question marks': Brian O'Driscoll accepts Sexton Lions omission

Ireland captain Sexton, 35, was one of the surprise omissions from Gatland’s 37-man squad named on Thursday to tour South Africa
'There have been question marks': Brian O'Driscoll accepts Sexton Lions omission

Brian O'Driscoll and Jonathan Sexton training ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup

Brian O’Driscoll can understand why Johnny Sexton was overlooked by the British & Irish Lions but the Ireland legend believes his former team-mate may have suffered for the lack of a man in his corner during Warren Gatland’s final selection meeting.

Leinster and Ireland captain Sexton, 35, was one of the surprise omissions from Gatland’s 37-man squad named on Thursday to tour South Africa and play the world champion Springboks this over three Tests this summer, the head coach preferring Scotland’s Finn Russell to compete with Dan Biggar of Wales and England’s Owen Farrell for the famous red number 10 jersey.

James Ryan and Garry Ringrose were among the other notable absentees alongside England’s Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi and Wales centre Jonathan Davies.

Gatland raised doubts over Sexton’s durability for playing three back-to-back Tests and 2005 Lions captain O’Driscoll told Off The Ball: "If he's trying to find a reason to leave him out, that is probably the obvious one.

"He is a 35-year-old, he has a lot of miles on the clock and yes, there have been question marks over the last few years over his ability to finish games.

Johnny Sexton is his own worst enemy a lot of the time because he enjoys defending as much as he enjoys attacking, and that's a rarity in a lot of 10s.

"He really prides himself on how hard he hits, he hits high - and you might argue the fact that it would encourage more head on head collisions, but he's one of the best defending 10s I've ever come across.

"Comparatively if you look at someone like Finn Russell, he makes his tackles but won't try and hold someone up or smash them, and unfortunately Johnny has picked up soft tissue or groin issues from kicking and the repetition of that, but also the contact issues.

"Some are maybe unlucky and some are because of the high tackle technique, but it has come back to bite him in the end. If you're finding a reason not to pick him, that's the obvious one. He will be very disappointed.”

O’Driscoll, the victim of a Gatland selection decision when he was dropped from the third and deciding Test against Australia in 2013 in favour of the aforementioned Davies, said the presence of Scotland boss Gregor Townsend as Gatland’s attack coach could have tipped the balance in Russell’s favour.

"In any team selection meeting, who’s fighting your corner? When you've got the Scottish head coach in Gregor Townsend in one corner, when you're talking 50-50 decisions, of course he's going to be arguing for all of Finn Russell's positive attributes.

"Then you wait and look across, and no-one is saying that about Johnny Sexton.

"In any selection meeting, you need someone on your side in there to pitch for you and fight for you, and on this occasion unfortunately Johnny Sexton came out second best - because of what Gatland mentioned, but also because you can be sure Gregor Townsend really pushed his own man.

"What you're coming up against in South Africa is some of the biggest specimens in world rugby, you think about the four locks who played in the World Cup final. They're absolute colossal men - and Gatland has always had a big thing about size, it was something he constantly reinforced into his team.

"If you look across the second rows, apart from Tadhg Beirne who is a utility player, they're all big lumps.

Is James Ryan a better player than Johnny Hill? In my book, he absolutely is, but he's not a bigger player and is relatively light at second row at international level.

"And the fact that Will Skelton (of La Rochelle) had such a dominant performance against him in his last audition, it really didn't go for him and he needed a game where he was man of the match.

"For him to get physically dominated was just the final nail in the coffin by the looks of things."

There are eight Ireland players who made the cut with O’Driscoll as surprised as everybody else by the selection of Connacht centre Bundee Aki.

"I'd love to know what Bundee thought, if there was a chance of him going, that's how much of a bolter that one was.

"For me, the take on that was they tried to wait and see if Manu Tuilagi would be fit and they couldn't back that, and had to find as much of a like for like player in Bundee Aki.

"Manu's loss means Aki's in, everyone's surprised and I'm sure many people cheered in Connacht and in Ireland.

"But I'm sure there were lots of people in the UK scratching their heads too."

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox