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Jonny: I knew it would be War'


Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

IRELAND'S Jonathan Sexton was not in the least surprised that his former coach Michael Cheika targeted him in the Lions' 47-17 defeat of the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.

Sexton knows only too well that Cheika is not one to let sentimentality or even fair play get in the way of getting what he wants.

"It is what you expect when you are playing at outside-half. I knew they would go after me because of knowing Michael Cheika from his Leinster days," said Sexton.

"I had a laugh with him after the game about it and told him I knew it was going to happen. But what goes on on the pitch stays there, and we had a laugh about it afterwards."

Sexton was shaken up by a heavy late charge from the 'Tah's giant second row William Skelton, while his half-back partner Mike Phillips was consistently taken out off the ball.

"Rugby is a physical game and it is all part of it. The Waratahs made it a tough game for us and they came out pretty pumped up.

"We were delighted to get the win, but there are still things we need to do better. We have to improve a lot and we know we are going to need to be closer to 100 per cent against Australia."

Refreshingly, Cheika did not avoid the allegation of going after Phillips and Sexton with the goal of slowing down the ball from set-pieces to the wider channels.

"I know a lot of the players and knew what to expect from them. I know they are class players and when they are all together from the four countries they are hard to stop," said Cheika.

"I thought we gave them a shake around the fringes of the ruck. We got stuck into the number nine and 10 a fair bit and that unsettled them.

"Jonny Sexton gave me a really dirty look at the end of the game, but he has so much quality. You have to put heat on the number nine and number 10 at this level because they are orchestrating for the team and the way the Lions play.

"They are organising the direction of the game, when they are going to go, and so you have got to get them hopping around to give yourself some chance of slowing down their attack.

"It is very clear the Lions are very good at the ruck on both sides of the ball and the ruck will decide the flow of the game in the Tests.

"The set-piece will be relatively even but that aspect will determine the course of the game because it will allow each number nine and number 10 to dictate the course of the play.

"Where we got caught out was when we did turnover – the class showed. They were able to finish the opportunities they had and we weren't able to do the same because we lacked a bit of X factor."

In terms of turnovers, the work-rate of lock Paul O'Connell was simply world class, stealing three balls at the breakdown in the first half.

The lock called a flawless lineout before he was withdrawn, made the second highest number of tackles to Sam Warburton, carried thunderously and tackled cleanly.

Warren Gatland knows his preferred Test selection for the first Test against Australia. The question is will he be able to put it out there next Saturday.

The problems come in the hamstring uncertainty over centre Jamie Roberts and wing George North, both men crucial to the Lions' game-plan.

Another central to the Gatland template is goal-kicking machine Leigh Halfpenny. His 30 record-breaking points showed he is more than just a kicker.

There is a nagging annoyance at the continuing struggle of Sam Warburton to find his form. There was a Sky Sports feature on his impact at the breakdown on Saturday.

The very least an out-and-out openside should do is make it to the breakdown first, especially when he is getting there in a straight line from A to B, in other words from ruck to ruck.

The combination between O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones was smooth and complementary. It is a nailed on certainty for the first Test.

The Lions coaches have obviously decided to overlook Adam Jones ongoing slow reactions outside the scrum where Australia will know he can be exploited. Dan Cole is a far better rugby player.

The power factor might not shade it for Richard Hibbard at hooker even though Tom Youngs has shown the best form, especially at the lineout on Saturday where O'Connell called almost everything short.

Tom Croft sealed his jersey at six for his athleticism out of touch and his speed in the wider channels.

This is where Jamie Heaslip was not best served. The back row is a unit-based business. Croft was given the licence to move freely, Warburton the responsibility at the breakdown and Heaslip was restricted to the narrow, dirt work.

This is the same role he played for Ireland when Seán O'Brien and Stephen Ferris were available under Declan Kidney. The result was Heaslip was not as visible as he has been on tour.