Johnny Sexton under pressure to secure Warren Gatland's nod for Lions No 10 shirt
IN 2013, Johnny Sexton went to Australia as the undisputed Lions No 10. This time around, he faces a very different challenge.
Four years ago, the Leinster out-half was master to 21-year-old Owen Farrell’s apprentice and Warren Gatland was so confident in his pre-eminence that he took a rookie full-back, Stuart Hogg, as his third-choice out-half.
Now Farrell is a live contender for the throne and Dan Biggar will make it a three-way battle for the starting berth.
Sexton started all three Tests in the Series win over the Wallabies, with Farrell replacing him in the closing stages of the decider after the result was beyond doubt.
Sexton remains one of the world’s leading out-halves, but the distance between himself and the contenders from this part of the world has narrowed.
Farrell, in particular, has emerged as a player of real substance and while a large part of his body of work for England has come at inside centre, outside George Ford, the Lions management were definitive yesterday in placing him in the out-half bracket.
Sexton has remained a top-level operator when fit, but the toll the game has taken on his body has been significant.
In December, Gatland warned Sexton that he must prove he is physically up to the rigours of the Tour and when he couldn’t recover from hamstring injuries in time to play in the opening games of the Six Nations, there were fears he would lose the race.
However, he came back and gave three high-quality displays, before excelling for Leinster against Wasps. Any doubt was banished.
“There’s no doubt Johnny has got some leadership. The great thing about those three No 10s is they all think they’re better than each other. That’s the biggest thing in the squad,” Gatland said.
“It’s pleasing to see Johnny get a few games under his belt. He was pretty battered and bruised after the Wales v Ireland game, so for him to front up the next week against England and play so well was really positive.
“There’s no doubt he’s going to be targeted. One of the things about our No 10s is that all of them are strong defenders and that’s going to be paramount in that channel, having players who can get off the line.
“That’s a strength of Owen Farrell, I think he’s going to have leadership in that role. We know he’s capable of playing at No 12 if we want. Defensively, we’re going to have to be strong in that area. We’ve been pleased with Johnny and hopefully he stays fit over the next six weeks.
“We’ve picked Owen as a No 10. There’s going to be a lot of competition, people are saying either Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell is going to play, but don’t discount the competitiveness of Dan Biggar. He isn’t going to lie down.
“But it could be a scenario where we end up with the best players on the field and if the best players end up being Johnny or Dan at 10 and Owen at 12, then we’ll do that.”
In 2013, Leigh Halfpenny had the kicking duties, but this time the Welsh full-back is not guaranteed a place, which puts the goal-kicking responsibilities back on the shoulders of the No 10s.
Although Sexton is a world-class goal-kicker, Farrell has demonstrated a ruthless capacity to land his goals and again the pair will go toe-to-toe.
“Looking at the squad, the point of difference is maybe our goal-kicking,” Gatland said.
“I think we’ve got four or five of the world’s best goal-kickers and if we’re going to have an edge somewhere it could be in that area.”