Johnny Sexton has one game to prove he is a starting British & Irish Lion Test fly-half on this tour to New Zealand and that opportunity comes tomorrow in Whangarei.
With only four games before head coach Warren Gatland effectively unveils his starting line-up for the Test series against the world champion All Blacks on June 24, the Lions boss has expressed his wish to get off to a winning start against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians and Ireland’s playmaker has been charged with the job to guide the 2017 tourists to that victory with an accomplished performance that will prove his suitability.
England’s Owen Farrell and Welshman Dan Biggar will get their chances against Super Rugby opposition in the coming eight days with Sexton handed further action off the bench, either against the Blues or Crusaders in that timeframe.
Yet this is realistically the Leinster hero’s only opportunity to stake his claim before Gatland fields his potential Test line-up in the key fixture against the Maori All Blacks on June 17 in Rotorua, a week out from the opening Test.
There will be a fourth fixture, against the Highlanders on June 13, but if Gatland wants you for the final audition four days later, a selection for that game in Dunedin is as clear a signal as you could wish for that you are on the outside looking in ahead of the Test series.
For Sexton, the starting number 10 in the winning series over Australia four years ago, that would be anathema yet Farrell is the frontrunner, a back-to-back European champion with Saracens just as the Irishman was with Leinster in 2013 and furthermore, the Dubliner is playing catch-up this weekend after only three starts for his province since steering Ireland to victory over Farrell’s England in the Six Nations finale on March 18.
“We’re starting Johnny because he hasn’t played a lot of rugby,” Gatland said yesterday after naming his matchday squad for the tour opener, with Farrell named in the replacements.
“The three 10s came in together but we felt Johnny needed to start this first game, get some rugby under his belt and get off to a good start — hopefully for the team but himself as well because he hasn’t played a huge amount of rugby.
“He’s been great. He knows he’s under … he knows he needs to get some games under his belt.
“He knows that the competition is pretty fierce in that position, but he’s a competitor and that’s what has made him one of the best 10s in world rugby.
“I’ve got no doubt he’d want a good performance from himself on Saturday.”
Sexton will partner Scotland captain and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw at Whangarei’s Toll Stadium and will have been relieved, having watched full-back Leigh Halfpenny take the goal-kicking duties in Australia four years ago, to have been handed the duties off the tee at the first opportunity this time around.
Against an NZ Barbarians side of Super Rugby squad members drawn from ITM and Heartland Cup level, including Gatland’s son Bryn at fly-half, that will likely provide the weakest opposition the Lions will face on this gruelling tour, Sexton will be expected to engineer a statement-making performance to lay down a winning marker for the rest of the tour.
“The statement first of all,” Gatland explained, “is a win.
“In 2009 (in South Africa) we struggled in that first game.
“It will be hard on these players and the weather will play a part.
“We will go out there and give a good performance.
“They will be hugely up for it and have half a dozen players who are involved in Super Rugby squads.
“A large proportion of them are coming out of club rugby so probably haven’t played at a high intensity for a few months so we have to play with tempo and put them under pressure.
“It’s about us concentrating on ourselves and setting down a marker for us to build on for Wednesday (against the Blues) and through to the Crusaders (on Saturday week).
“It is an important week this first one. To get off to a good start I want the players to put us coaches under pressure and make the job difficult for us in terms of selection and who we are going to pick when it comes to the first Test.”
It is clear that whatever the opposition there is no easing into this tour as far as Gatland is concerned. Victory is expected and while Gatland has said he is prepared to lose a couple of games before the first Test in order to hone the right team to face the All Blacks, losing to the NZ Barbarians is not part of the plan.
“To be honest we have to go out there and win on Saturday. There’s no doubt that it’s important that we get the tour off to a good start.
“The next two games are going to be tough. I think, strangely, even though the Crusaders have been going well, potentially the Blues game may be a bit more physical because they have some very, very strong ball-carriers where as a collective unit the Crusaders are very strong and are going to be tough to beat.
“So the next two games after Saturday are going to be tough tests for us as well but we need to get this tour off to a good start, and we need a good performance on Saturday. There’s no hiding from that fact. I think the players are well aware of that.”
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