Durability, not concussion conspired against Johnny Sexton’s selection as a 2021 British & Irish Lion, head coach Warren Gatland explained after unveiling the 37 players he will take to South Africa.
Gatland will be taking eight Ireland internationals with him in a touring party that has rarely been so evenly balanced in terms of nationality with 11 Englishmen, 10 Welsh, including captain Alun Wyn Jones, and eight Scots also set to board the plane at the end of June.
Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, and Robbie Henshaw will return to Lions colours having toured New Zealand four years ago and this will be Murray’s third tour. He will be joined by Munster team-mate Tadhg Beirne, a first-time selection alongside Leinster prop Andrew Porter and back row Jack Conan, and a bolter in Connacht centre Bundee Aki.
Yet Sexton, who has started five of the last six Lions Tests against Australia in 2013 and New Zealand four years ago, will not be among them and he was not the only Irishman to count themselves unlucky with James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander, and Keith Earls also missing out.
Ryan and Ringrose may get another crack at Lions representation, maybe even this summer.
With the Rainbow Cup ongoing and a Lions “home” Test against Japan in Edinburgh still to be played before departure, there will be long odds on all 37 of those named still being of sound body by the time final boarding is called.
With his 36th birthday fast approaching on July 11, though, a call-up to replace one of Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell, or Finn Russell is Sexton’s remaining hope of pulling on the famous red jersey once more.
The head coach’s explanations for omitting him were logical but did not, he insisted, include the Irish captain’s concussions against Wales in February and Exeter last month.
“I thought he was outstanding against Scotland and great against England,” Gatland said.
“There’s no doubt he’s a quality player and at the end of the day it wasn’t about concussion for me. We made a tough call about durability.”
Gatland needed to be convinced all his players could withstand the rigours of three back-to-back Tests against the world champions and Sexton’s recent track record did not give such assurance.
“He played the Six Nations and the thing with the Six Nations is that you do have a couple of games and then you get a week off and because it is really, really tough.
“To give you a good example, I know he’s rested on a number of occasions for Leinster or for Ireland but the last time that Johnny played three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018 and he has had some knocks, we know that, but he’s had a number of different injuries.
“So when it came down to it, we’ve got such a choice of three, four, five quality 10s to pick from and I just wanted to send a message to the guys we have selected that we have complete confidence and faith in you to do a job and that mitigated against the risk that if we did pick Johnny he doesn’t play games or doesn’t get through the tour and then having to call someone up.
“To me it’s just such an important position, I just wanted to get that right.”
Listening to Gatland one could not help but wonder whether the IRFU’s much-lauded and respected player welfare programme, designed to extend playing careers, had produced the unintended consequence of working against Sexton in the eyes of the Lions. It had given him the longevity of going on a third Lions tour at the age of 36, just two months older than tour skipper Jones, but taken away the confidence for selectors that he could stay the course against the Springboks.
Gatland was an assistant to Ian McGeechan when the Lions last visited South Africa and were ill-prepared by the brutality of the 2009 tour and the former Wales boss does not intend to be blindsided again.
“It was right up there and that’s where if you were going to Australia or New Zealand then the make-up of the squad may be a little bit different. It’s trying to get that balance right.
“When we go there we’re going to have to roll our sleeves up on a few occasions and mix it and go toe-to-toe with the South Africans.
“We feel like we’ve picked players who are effective in that situation and can do that sort of job for us but we’ve also got to be mindful that we want to go out there and play some good rugby.
“We want to put them under pressure and we want to be positive in the way that we play.”