Warren Gatland this week told of a moment on the Carton House training field last week when he called in his fly-halves for a meeting.
He was standing close to two of them, Dan Biggar and Johnny Sexton, but the third, Owen Farrell, was on the other side of the pitch at the time, prompting the Irishman to tell the British & Irish Lions head coach that the Englishman was a midfielder and his presence would not be required.
Sexton insisted with a smile that he was only joking but it is clear that given the respective players’ form on arrival in New Zealand this week that the Leinster playmaker may have his work cut out if he is to retain the Lions number 10 jersey in which four years ago he guided the tourists to their first series victory since 1997.
Back then in Australia, Farrell was the rookie fly-half, very much Sexton’s understudy, while four years on, the master has been ravaged by injury after injury and has since the Six Nations been only sparingly used by his province.
While Farrell has been used by England as an inside centre/second five-eighth outside George Ford, hence Sexton’s quip to Gatland, the 25-year-old has spearheaded Saracens’ march to back-to-back European titles from the fly-half berth.
Sexton’s domestic duties, meanwhile, ended with a below-par outing in Leinster’s PRO12 semi-final upset at home to Scarlets and the 31-year-old accepts that earning a starting jersey for the first Test against the All Blacks on June 24 will be one of the biggest challenges of his illustrious career.
“He’s a world-class player. He’s had some great success over the last couple of years, and I know what that feels like having had the same success with Leinster, but probably four years previously,” Sexton said of Farrell. “He’s obviously coming in as favourite to start somewhere, so it will be up to me to try and prove that I can still play that role. But like I said, I can’t get focused on that, or other players. I’ve got to concentrate on myself and bringing the best performances out of myself and see where that gets me. If it’s not good enough well, I can live with that, and hopefully, it will be good enough.”
The presence of Welshman Biggar further complicates matters for Sexton having only had Farrell for competition in Australia four years ago, especially with Gatland insisting there is as yet no pecking order for the starting Test fly-half vacancy.
Sexton has been given the first opportunity to stake his claim with a starting role against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians today in Whangarei, Farrell his replacement cover. Both the Englishman and Biggar will be given starts in the next seven days with the Lions returning to Auckland tomorrow after their official Maori welcome ceremony at Waitangi ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Blues at Eden Park, followed by unbeaten Super Rugby table-toppers the Crusaders in Christchurch a week today.
Both Sexton and Gatland agree he badly needs some game time having played just three times for Leinster since the Six Nations, although the player reiterated the has been fully fit since recovering from the calf injury suffered against Castres in January and from which he recovered to face France in round three of the Championship a month later.
“That was coaches’ decisions. It was at the start of the season I struggled to get on the pitch. In terms of game time for the whole season, that’s where I was saying that when I was on the pitch I was happy with how I played, but at the end of the season I was fit and ready to go. It wasn’t ideal. We had a (Champions Cup) quarter-final straight after the Six Nations, so the guys didn’t want me to play before that and then didn’t want me to play before the semi-final. But I was training on the pitch the whole time. Apart from a few bumps and bruises that you always carry, I’ve been fairly injury free as such and ready to go now.
“The (PRO12) semis didn’t go great but I’m here now and it’s like starting another season again.
“I think (starting today), it’s just to get some game time. I don’t think it’s any pecking order or anything like that. But it’s always good to get the first chance to make the first impression. Preparation won’t be ideal but you’ve got to leave all the excuses at the door when you play for the Lions.
It doesn’t come around very often so you’ve got to appreciate every moment you get in the jersey.”
Sexton has had his moments to cherish with the Lions, of course, but he also understands it counts for nothing on the current tour and there is no credit in the bank with Gatland and his assistant coaches.
“I think it’s a clean slate. I don’t think they’re going to say ‘oh, he did well four years ago, so we’re going to put him in.’ I think it’ll depend on form from here to the first Test and how well you do.
What Sexton does have that his fly-half rivals don’t, however, is the experience of having beaten the All Blacks, the Irishman one of the heroes in green who made history with a first win for his country over New Zealand in that epic Chicago victory last November.
While the win was significant, it was the manner of Ireland’s approach that day at Soldier Field that the fly-half believes will inform the Lions ahead of this three-Test series.
“There’s ways that you have to play against them. We stuck to the gameplan in Chicago and in the Aviva, we caused them trouble, but when we went away from that we struggled against them.
“You can’t sit back against them, that’s the one thing I think the Irish guys might try and influence with the other guys, that you’ve got to keep attacking. I think you saw that in Chicago more than anything. When we sat back we conceded two or three tries and then flipped the switch again and started to attack and we got some rewards. Remember Robbie (Henshaw’s) try and how that came about, attacking off the scrum and putting the ball in behind them. So it’s not just attacking with ball in hand, it can be an attacking, kicking game anddefence as well. That’s probably the one big thing.”
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