Sport Lions Tour

Friday 24 January 2020

Rob Howley backs 'world class' Sexton to bounce back as things get 'pretty heated' in training

Jonathan Sexton
Jonathan Sexton

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Auckland

LIONS attack coach Rob Howley has backed Johnny Sexton to bounce back from his “inconsistent” opening Lions performance.

The former Wales scrum-half believes the Ireland out-half still has a big role to play on the six-week tour of 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 tomorrow when the Lions take on the Blues at Eden Park, the venue for the first and third Tests.

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 that game, 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 in Auckland overnight.

“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.”

The clash against the Auckland-based Blues represents a real step up for the Lions who will take on all five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises in the coming weeks.

The game takes place against the back-drop of Warren Gatland’s forthright rejection of the ‘Warrenball’ tag that has dogged him since 2013 and the coach’s image donned the front-page of the New Zealand Herald this morning with the headline ‘Grumpy Gatland’.

Howley joined his boss in rejecting the tag.

“I don't know what Warrenball means. I haven’t got a clue,” he said.

“That is all I can say having been part of my third tour now. I'm not too sure what Warrenball means. I don’t know, have we played that over the last few years? I'm not too sure.”

The Lions have been promising an expansive approach to the series and Howley repeatedly used the word ‘chaos’ to describe what’s coming.

“That’s the nature of the game, that’s rugby in the southern hemisphere,” he said.

“That’s how the majority of the international sides play, that’s from chaos, that’s from structure.

“The majority of the game now is from kick returns and turnovers and it’s the ability to react in those situations and to not get left behind, to be ahead of the game. That’s in terms of support lines and handling skills.

“That’s something we’ve talked about with 15 v 15 (in training), we have a hugely motivated squad and that’s in terms of line-speed and Andy Farrell’s coaching us players to come off the line.

“We’re trying to put that match speed into training and we have a hugely competitive squad here and we did a drill yesterday, an offload drill and the contact was explosive.

“That’s the challenge for us, sometimes you have to sit back sometimes as they want to give everything in training and we have to make sure we’re smart with that

“There are different pictures over here, the way the game is and we’re trying to get up to speed with those pictures, hence the rugby chaos.

“The players are enjoying it as the rugby chaos doesn’t go on for too long and it’s about intensity and the speed of the game and the speed of the decision-making and getting the ball to the wide channels.

“The more we practise it, obviously it’s in its infancy at the moment but the more we keep working and we’ll see improvement on Wednesday night.”

Howley revealed that the implementation of the game-plan in full contact sessions has led to some fiery exchanges in training.

“We were playing an offload drill and it got pretty heated,” he said.

“We’re mindful of injuries as well, but we are mindful of putting players under pressure as well. So there’s a fine balance as well but we went from a technical drill into open play and play what’s in front and suddenly it becomes a high competitive contact.

“We just had to be mindful of that.”

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