Whether it is opponents declaring their intention to exploit his supposed weaknesses or critics doubting he can last the tour, Johnny Sexton has enjoyed proving them wrong on this Lions tour.
The Ireland playmaker who helped engineer the Lions’ famous victory over the All Blacks in Wellington last Saturday was not meant to have survived to this point of the New Zealand tour, let alone be the man to steer Warren Gatland’s side into a series decider with the world champions.
Four years after strutting onto the tour to Australia and guiding Warren Gatland’s side to a much-needed series victory over the Wallabies, Sexton arrived in New Zealand low on confidence and short on gametime after a stop-start season with Leinster, his position as alpha fly-half adopted by England’s Owen Farrell, who had been very much the young apprentice in 2013.
Before the first game in Whangarei, the Dubliner even went so far as to suggest Farrell was in the mental space he had occupied on the previous tour, as if to say all the supreme confidence he had possessed in Australia was no longer part of his make-up and his performance against the Provincial Barbarians in that tour opener seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet fortune smiled on Sexton. The next game, three days later against the Blues, saw starting 10 Dan Biggar carted off with a concussion before half-time and four days after that in Christchurch, when Farrell started against the Crusaders, another failed head injury assessment, this time for Jon Davies, saw Sexton slot in at fly-half to partner the England man who had switched to inside centre.
The 10-12 partnership was born and Sexton had more gametime in seven days than he had dared imagine. Having seen the 12-3 defeat of Super Rugby’s hottest team, head coach Gatland declared Sexton had rediscovered his mojo and, significantly, the Ireland star had come through three tough outings in quick succession.
“You don’t go searching for opinion but it’s hard to ignore at times. Obviously people were saying that I couldn’t survive a Lions tour, that I wouldn’t be able for it, so it’s nice to prove yourself that you can,” Sexton said yesterday having been named once more at 10, with Farrell at 12.
“I played three games in a week and to be able to back that up by starting the Maori game the week after, it’s always nice to do things like that when people don’t expect you to be able to.
“I don’t seek it out (being written off). I try the opposite, but often, whether it’s your mum or someone else just texting you, venting about what this person has said about you. Your brother might say it to you and you’re ‘please, don’t say that again, don’t tell me’.
“You try to stay away from it but it’s very hard in today’s world with the amount of social media and just media and how popular the game is, it’s very hard to stay away from everything. You do see some stuff.”
Nor will Sexton have been able to ignore comments from All Blacks outside centre Anton Lienert-Brown ahead of the second Test that his side would look to “expose” himself and Farrell defensively in the absence of Ben Te’o, who had started the first Test at 12.
Not that it was all down to the two fly-halves but the All Blacks were kept tryless at home for the first time in 15 years in the second Test. It is an unchanged squad from the players named for last week’s second Test, which means Sexton’s Leinster and Ireland team-mate Sean O’Brien is free to play following the dismissal of the citing against him for an alleged swinging arm on Waisake Naholo in Wellington.
“It’s brilliant to have him,” said Sexton, “he’s been playing really well. It was a relief to everyone in the squad when he got cleared. Obviously, we knew that there was nothing in it really. It was just unfortunate that it resulted in an injury (concussion) but these things can happen and we’re delighted to have him for Saturday.
“He’s been really good so far. We’ve seen that when Seanie is fit and he’s had a string of games, this is what he produces. He’s had a few injuries over the years but when you play like he does, you’re going to pick up a few injuries because he puts everything on the line when he plays.
“That’s what makes him the player he is, so you can’t say to him ‘rein it back a bit’ because then you don’t have the real Sean O’Brien. It’s just once he gets fit and gets those string of games together, it’s the same with every player. All you need is a run of games to find your best form.
“We’re seeing the best of him now.”
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