Cheika: Jonny to drive Lions on

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Jonathan Sexton. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

FORMER Leinster coach Michael Cheika expects "to see the best come out of" Jonathan Sexton against his Waratahs and Australia.

"Jonny's going very well, just the confidence in the player and the way he's setting up the play and carrying the ball in both hands and keeping the opposition on the back foot," said Cheika.

"I just think he's really matured into an excellent footballer. He deserves it because he's a competitive bugger and he wants to fight his way to the top, even when he's at the top."

Cheika also gave a tongue-in-cheek compliment to another Irishman who won't be playing tomorrow.

"You've only got to look at the way O'Driscoll has been playing on this tour to see what type of team they are because they're the leaders.

"He's still at his best and he's what, 50 now? Is he 51 or 52? He's still as strong as an ox, he's been brilliant."

In fact, the Lions coach Warren Gatland could be forgiven for moulding many of the Test match unit combinations against Michael Cheika's Waratahs tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe he is.

"We've got almost a full complement of forwards, which is great, but the backs have tended to take most of the punishment," said Gatland, in what appeared to be support of this theory.

For instance, there is every reason to consider the pack of forwards a viable Test eight given how Richard Hibbard and Rory Best have faltered at lineout time, allowing Tom Youngs to move into pole position at hooker.

At this stage, the sad demise of Cian Healy to ankle ligament damage makes the explosive Mako Vunipola and Adam Jones odds-on to wear jerseys one and three in the first Test.

The link between Paul O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones in the second row is the logical pairing with Ian Evans, Geoff Parling and Richie Gray unable to provide convincing cases for inclusion.

The back row, too, is a fairly potent force with Sam Warburton surely playing due to his captaincy rather than form and Tom Croft's pace and lineout athleticism making him a likely option at blindside.

Jamie Heaslip's leadership and all-round game arguably puts him a level above Toby Faletau. Certainly, Heaslip has been given the stage to lay down the final marker in his one-on-one with Faletau for the number eight jersey.

It would seem more than slightly illogical to ask any player to play against the Waratahs tomorrow and the Brumbies on Tuesday before the first Test.

Impact

This is all conjecture, of course. There are those who have been calling for the Lions' Test team to be given one shot at coming together.

The Mike Phillips-Jonathan Sexton half-back axis will finally begin, while Leigh Halfpenny completes the triangle as the designated goal kicker from full-back.

There are also reasonable excuses for not seeing the full three-quarter line tomorrow. Centre O'Driscoll (leg) and wing George North (hamstring) are nursing minor injuries.

Thus, Jonathan Davies, ahead of the injured Manu Tuilagi (shoulder), and Simon Zebo, making his debut, will be introduced into action.

Even then, the impact of Sean Maitland on the right wing and at full-back makes him a superior option to the one-dimensional Alex Cuthbert.

This could very well be the Lions' first Test selection, minus the exempted Brian O'Driscoll and George North.

The well-deserved criticism of the paucity of the Australian opposition to this point has been heeded with the 'Tahs able to select from what is almost a full-strength side without centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau.

This is bound to be the first time the Lions could wilt. The absence of O'Driscoll's undiminished brilliance and North's game-breaking agility opens the door for Cheika and his men.

Verdict: The Lions

British and Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; S Maitland, J Davies, J Roberts, S Zebo; J Sexton, M Phillips; M Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, AW Jones, P O'Connell, T Croft, S Warburton, J Heaslip.


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