Thursday 27 July 2017

Gatland could pair Sexton and Farrell together in 10/12 axis during tour opener

Johnny Sexton had a bit of fun trying to convince Warren Gatland that Owen Farrell was a centre

18 March 2017; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Owen Farrell of England during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
18 March 2017; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Owen Farrell of England during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Auckland

Warren Gatland says he may look to pair Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together at some point in the opening game of the Lions tour of New Zealand on Saturday.

The coach named the Ireland out-half to start against the Provincial Barbarians yesterday, while the England star is on the bench.

So far, Farrell has been considered as a direct rival to Sexton but he has played most of his recent international rugby alongside George Ford in the No 12 shirt and many believe the best deployment of resources would see Gatland do the same with the Lions.

The head coach, who will face his son Bryn who starts at out-half for the Barbarians on Saturday, said Sexton needs to get game-time under his belt after a disjointed end to the season with Leinster.

"We'll see what happens on the weekend. Owen is on the bench, so he might get some time in the midfield," Gatland said ahead of the tourists' training session in Auckland overnight.

"We know that's an option for us, having played in the midfield. I, personally, and the other coaches, think he's a world-class No 10.

"So it's not just with Sexton and Farrell, you've got (Dan) Biggar as well. There's some real experience there and knowing the three of them, they're desperate to play and start in that position."

Sexton has been doing his best to persuade Gatland that Farrell belongs with the midfield too.

"It was quite funny last week at the end of the training, I just said I would have a chat to the No 10s. Dan was there and Johnny Sexton was there, and Owen was over there and Johnny said, 'Don't worry about him, he's a midfielder'," Gatland revealed with a smile.

"There's already a bit of banter about and the players are very aware of the competition in that position, so they'll get a chance, the three of them, to start. Johnny starts on Saturday and then the other two will start the next two games."

Gatland appears to have earmarked the clash with the Maori on June 17 as the day he will show his hand and pick a close to full-strength side a week out from the first Test.

"The Maori game is pretty important for us, isn't it?" he said.

"That's a week before the first Test and you might be mirroring reasonably close to your starting XV for the first Test."

And Gatland is looking forward to a tough battle between the two men many see as the leading contenders for the out-half berth.

"They're both capable of playing flat to the gain-line, which is important," he said of Farrell and Sexton.

"They're both great goal-kickers with a lot of experience and I think at the moment, not just the two of them but the three of them are bringing out the best in each other.

"There's going to be some real competition. It's not just their attacking, they're going to have to be strong defensively too.

"Their leadership is going to be important as well in terms of their communication and implementing the game plan that we can take the All Blacks on with."

Along with the younger Gatland, the Provincial Barbarians side also contains former Ireland Schools prop Oliver Jager who is contracted to the Crusaders.

Provincial Barbarians team to face the Lions: Luteru Lualala; Sam Vaka, Inga Finau, Dwayne Sweeney, Sevu Reece; Bryn Gatland, Jack Stratton; Aidan Ross, Sam Anderson-Heather (capt), Oliver Jager; Josh Goodhue, Keepa Mewett; James Tucker, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Dunshea. Reps: Andrew Makalio, Tolu Fahamokioa, Marcel Renata, Matt Matich, Peter Rowe, Richard Judd, Jonah Lowe, Junior Ngaluafe.

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