Saturday 21 October 2017

Comment: Pray for Sexton's fitness because Farrell isn't good enough

Jonathon Sexton reacts after he scored a try for the Lions
Jonathon Sexton reacts after he scored a try for the Lions

James Corrigan

At last we have a Lions tour worthy of the great tradition. And while we should give credit to Queensland for showing Western Force just what they missed in all but conceding the midweek fixture, there are very real concerns for Warren Gatland with the first Test just two weeks away.

Tommy Bowe's broken hand inevitably soured the experience. The flying Ulsterman had made one of the wing berths his own. His run in the first-half was sheer class and he is a consummate professional in every aspect. Bowe offered something different to George North and it is a great shame if he is lost to the party.

The same would have applied to Manu Tuilagi, who went off in the early stages. However, his exit – which was, apparently, only precautionary – did allow Gatland to see North playing in the centres.

He is a selection he has been tempted to make for Wales and it was simple to understand why. North is a terrifying prospect on the ball, who can reduce midfields to dusts. But he is more than a brakeless bulldozer. He has all the skills and offers Gatland an almost irresistible option. But resist it he will have to, because of Bowe's wretched diagnosis.

The Kiwi will now make the call, probably to Simon Zebo. While he's at it he should also use his phone to correct the glaring weakness in his squad. The most worrying moment in this game wasn't when Quade Cooper, that maverick of all mavericks, was on one of his thrilling forays, but when Jonathan Sexton limped to the touchline to see the medics.

The sighs of relief were almost palpable when the Irishman, after a brief rub on his thigh, jogged back on to the pitch. In that instant, Gatland's house of cards had suffered a mighty wobble.

Imagine if the injury was tour-threatening. Imagine if Sexton was on his way home. Owen Farrell would become the first-choice fly-half; in fact he would become the only choice. Stuart Hogg, a man who has never played at 10 at top level, would be the cover.

It's a pointless concern to have and should be addressed immediately by Gatland. Sexton could be out in the flash of a boot in a practice session in the final hours before a Test and where would the Lions be then.

Having to rely solely on Farrell, a young man who is clearly still learning his craft. In truth, the Englishman is not yet Lions standard, as he showed against Queensland with some awful kicking from hand which invariably landed up in the hands of the wing Luke Morahan and gave the Queenslander the half of his life.

Nobody can doubt Farrell's form off the tee, however, and when he is put alongside the faultless radar that is Leigh Halfpenny, the Lions have an obvious strength. It is just one of many. The set-piece was so on top in Brisbane that the scoreline appeared a mockery.

Granted, it was a little disconcerting to see the Lions finish with two tight-heads, but with Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant linking up, that shouldn't be a problem.

The back row continues to be an area of tremendous variety. As captain, Sam Warburton is considered a shoo-in by many, but Gatland has the courage to leave him out if the situation demands. Warburton looked short of a few games against Queensland and should start again next Saturday, if not on Tuesday.

In his favour, he got better as the game progressed and would, at the very least, be satisfied with his night's work. But with the likes of Justin Tipuric and Sean O'Brien also fighting for the No 7 shirt, “satisfied” might not be enough.

For now, Gatland will simply be relieved to have a proper videotape to review. He and his staff will watch it and be glad that the Australian coach, Robbie Deans, continues to have a downer about Cooper.

True, he is hard to fit into a rigid structure, but those 20-yard passes and blessed vision make him a nightmare to defend against. The Australians will need to gamble if they are to have a chance of denying this supremely powerful Lions outfit. Deans should have learned that in Brisbane.

Telegraph.co.uk

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