Owen Farrell injury woe puts Sexton centre stage with Tests looming large
With Owen Farrell now a major doubt for the first Test between the Lions and New Zealand in a week’s time, the door has opened for Johnny Sexton to nail down what seemed like an unlikely starting spot two weeks ago.
News that the Saracens out-half suffered a Grade I strain to his quadricepsore this week has come as a hammer-blow to the Lions’ chances of success in the Test series and Warren Gatland will be praying that the Ireland star rediscovers his form against the Maori All Blacks on Saturday to provide some solace to the squad.
Farrell was almost certain to start the first Test at Eden Park next week either at out-half or centre, but was strangely left out of the dress-rehearsal side for the clash with the Maori.
Hours after the team was announced, the Lions issued a further statement; ruling the England pivot out of the clash in Rotorua and putting him at real risk of missing the opening clash with the All Blacks.
Already without his club-mate Billy Vunipola who missed out on the tour entirely and two-time Six Nations player of the year Stuart Hogg who left earlier this week with a fractured cheekbone; the prospect of going into battle without a man they expected to be their main goal-kicker threatens to destabilise the Lions’ plans.
Whether he was wearing the No 10 or 12 shirt, Farrell was always inked into the team after a superb season for club and country.
So, Sexton will know that a strong performance against the Maori takes him one step closer to retaining the jersey he wore in the three Tests in Australia four years ago.,
His form coming into the tour took a big dip in Leinster’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final defeat to the Scarlets and he followed that up with a disappointing outing against the New Zealand Barbarians on day one. Farrell replaced him after only 46 minutes.
Unfortunate head injuries suffered by Biggar and Jon Davies have allowed him play his way into form off the bench, he got minutes under his belt but still found the going tough against the Blues and then showed his true self alongside Conor Murray and Farrell last Saturday as the tourists got what looked like a crucial victory over the Crusaders.
Leigh Halfpenny will likely take over the kicking duties, just as he did in 2013 and Sexton will be asked to run the show.
“Johnny continues to need some more rugby and we’re building him towards that,” Gatland said at the team announcement press conference when the full extent of Farrell's issue was not in the public domain.
“He was really good off the bench against the Crusaders and the combination of Nos 10 and 12 was seamless.
“He knows his games before that weren’t his best, the Barbarians game and the PRO12 semi-final, he was down a bit on confidence but he’s got his mojo back and we wanted to give him a start.”
A grade I tear is unlikely to keep Farrell out for the duration of the series but that opening Test against the All Blacks looks like the key to any potential success and to lose one of their leaders would be a major issue.
Sexton has been there and done it before, Gatland needs him to deliver.