Warren Gatland has challenged Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton to stay “fit and perform” during the Six Nations if he hopes to be the British & Irish Lions Test starter.
The Lions head coach said yesterday he felt Sexton, who missed Ireland’s final Guinness Series Test win over Australia with a hamstring injury suffered early in the previous week’s clash with New Zealand, was now under pressure to remain the tourists’ first-choice No.10 when they face the All Blacks over three Tests this summer in Auckland and Wellington.
With Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt suggesting at the end of international window that Sexton might benefit from a rest beyond his injury issues, the question of the Leinster fly-half’s durability was put to Gatland in Kildare yesterday after he revealed his three assistant coaches for the 2017 Tour, attack coach Rob Howley, forwards coach Steve Borthwick with Andy Farrell getting the defence brief.
Gatland was asked if a player’s durability, namely Sexton’s, could be a deciding factor in team and indeed squad selection, “Obviously Johnny hasn’t played a lot of rugby recently. You want him to get through the Six Nations,” he said. “It’s making sure I do my job properly. You look at the quality of someone like Johnny Sexton and the experience he’s had.
“The conversation with Johnny might be ‘We might take you on tour. There’s been a little bit of concern about your durability. If you do pick up a knock or an injury and you’re out for a couple of weeks, the quality of the squad is that, someone else could step into your shoes and when you come back, normally when you come back in an Irish situation, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been out, you go straight back into the team as number one.
“If you come into a Lions situation, if someone is playing well, you might not be going back into that starting side as a 10, you might be sitting on the bench or not involved. How are you going to be able to handle that? Are you going to be prepared for that? What’s your attitude around the team and squad going to be like?’
“If I’m doing my job properly, I’ve had that conversation with him and potentially he’s got his head right and he’s prepared for that potential eventuality if it does happen.
“The Lions can be a different sort of animal or beast when you have the quality of players to choose from. It’s different.
“From his point of view, in the next few months and Six Nations are important for him. A couple of other players have done all right for Ireland — Paddy Jackson and the young boy Carbery looks all right for the future as well.
“I think Johnny probably knows he’s probably under a little bit of pressure to be fit and perform too.”
Gatland said two players who stood out for him during the November Test window were two of Ireland’s heroes from the famous Chicago win over New Zealand.
“If I go to the All Blacks game in Soldier Field, two players that really impressed me that day were Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw. I thought they had two big games, and those are two names for the moment but there’s a hell of a long way to go. I could mention 10 or 12 names and by the time the squad’s named in April someone could have overtaken them. But there were some big performances in the autumn and it’s disappointing Robbie went off so early in that game (against the All Blacks) in Dublin.
“I know how important the performances are, and an integral part of Ireland going well is Conor Murray.
“He’s probably one of the most improved players in the last three or four years and I look back on 2013 and we’ve often said if there was another Test the following week he would have been the starting nine, the way he continued to improve.
“He went out there probably the number three and ended up the number one by the end of the tour. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get a chance to start in a fourth Test. So there’s a couple of names for you, read into them what you want but I can tell you there’s going to be a hell of a lot of things that can change between now and the Six Nations.
“That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done for those two players, mention them, because if I was up against them I’d be doing everything I can to knock them off their perch, so I haven’t done them any favours.”
Gatland confirmed yesterday he still hoped to make more coaching appointments for the New Zealand tour, with a second attack coach the priority to assist Howley.
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