Howley backs 'inconsistent' Sexton to bounce back
Lions attack coach Rob Howley has backed Johnny Sexton to bounce back from his "inconsistent" opening Lions performance, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor.
The former Wales scrum-half believes the Ireland out-half still has a big role to play in New Zealand despite producing a sub-par display against the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday. The 31-year-old will get another chance to impress off the bench this morning when the Lions take on the Blues at Eden Park.
Sexton's out-of-sorts outing in Whangarei means he has lost ground on Owen Farrell in the race for the No 10 slot for the first Test, with the England out-half set for his first start of the tour alongside Conor Murray in what looks like being the beginnings of a first-choice XV against the Crusaders on Saturday. Howley revealed that he's spoken to Sexton twice since the 13-7 win in Northland and is expecting a response from the man who started all three Tests in Australia four years ago.
"I spoke to Johnny on Sunday and Monday," he said. "The way the game mapped out we played a lot of rugby in terms of our attacking kicking game. That's a challenge first up. You go in with a bare minimum and the tools which we had. We can only work on those elements over the last couple of weeks. It was tough for Johnny but he's a world-class No 10. I suppose the word is inconsistent. I spoke to Johnny and he admitted it. There's an honesty between coaches and players. He'll bounce back. He's a world-class No 10 and don't underestimate his influence in 2013. He's a very intelligent rugby player."
Meanwhile, former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan has raised doubts over Warren Gatland's temperament in the wake of the Lions coach's staunch defence of his record and rejection of the 'Warrenball' tag in the face of criticism in New Zealand.
O'Sullivan, who was once Gatland's assistant with Ireland before replacing him, believes the Kiwi is showing signs that the pressure is telling.
"He has certainly made a rod for his back now," O'Sullivan told the BBC. "At the moment he is prickling at a lot of things, and it's very early days for that, it's a long tour. So I'm surprised a coach of his experience got sucked into the 'Warrenball' debate. It has put pressure straight away on the team to put in a big performance against the Blues."
All Black coach Steve Hansen will have his say on the issue tomorrow when he names his squad for the series, but he has issues of his own after Brodie Retalick was the latest leading light to suffer a head injury. Hansen is also monitoring the fitness of captain Kieran Read, flanker Jerome Kaino, centre Ryan Crotty and winger Nehe Milner Skudder.