Friday 20 April 2018

'Sexton has got his mojo back' - Gatland hints Irishman could line out in 10-12 axis with Farrell against All Blacks

Johnny Sexton of the British & Irish Lions celebrates after the match against Crusaders
Johnny Sexton of the British & Irish Lions celebrates after the match against Crusaders

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Rotorua

Warren Gatland had billed tomorrow’s game against the Maori All Blacks as a Test dress rehearsal, but the head coach threw a curve-ball over-night by starting Johnny Sexton and benching Owen Farrell.

The coach has opted to pair Sexton with his regular Ireland partner Conor Murray, with his old Leinster foil Ben Te’o outside him.

Sexton started the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians and came off the bench against the Blues and the Crusaders and Gatland says the Leinster man needs more game-time to play his way into form.

He has resisted the temptation to combine Sexton and Farrell from the start on Saturday, but suggested the duo could line out in a 10-12 axis at some point in the game after the combination worked so well against the Crusaders.

“Johnny continues to need some more rugby and we’re building him towards that,” Gatland said. “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.

There’s always discussions, Owen’s had a little bit of rugby. He’s on the bench, we can have a look at him and he’s covering the midfield and we can look at that 10-12 combination.

“We can’t fully show our hand, we’re keeping some combinations back and we have to keep the All Blacks guessing.

“There’s a chance we’ll see the two of them together.”

There is a look of something close to a Test team to the line-up, but Maro Itoje comes into the second-row for Alun-Wyn Jones who played plenty of rugby this week and Iain Henderson takes his place on the bench after impressing on Tuesday in the defeat to the Highlanders.

Behind the scrum, Leigh Halfpenny has a big opportunity to grab the No 15 shirt, while Anthony Watson and George North can secure the wing berths with a good display.

O’Mahony was delighted to be named as skipper and has a shot at captaining the side next week if Sam Warburton isn't selected to start.

“It's a huge honour, obviously to be picked for the Lions at all is a massive honour,” he said.

“To get the nod from Warren this weekend is hugely special, not just me but for all the clubs, people and family who have put effort into me.

“He just gave me a nod at breakfast, and fired it at me, and obviously I was delighted.”

Gatland has spoken about O’Mahony’s capacity to bring some “Munster mongrel” to the party and elaborated on that quality at this morning’s press conference.

“I think sometimes that you're looking, it's not something that you can quantify what Munster brings to a game,” he said.

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“It's a special pride, sometimes the performances they can produce, it's done consistently over the years.

“Being able to dig deep and bring performances from places where individuals and collectively people often can't do.

“That's what Peter will bring to the team on Saturday.”

Asked if the Munster skipper could be a Test captain, Gatland shrugged and said: “We'll see how he goes on Saturday."

O’Brien regains the No 7 shirt he wore against the Crusaders and a strong performance would put him firmly in the frame to start the first Test ahead of captain Warburton who is on the bench on Saturday.

“We recognise that loose forward trio went really well on Saturday,” he said of the O’Mahony, O’Brien, Faletau axis that performed so well in Christchurch.

“The challenge for them is to repeat it. And if they do it again, we'll make what we think is the right selection for the Test match.

“Sam will come off the bench, CJ (Stander) did well coming off the bench too and has had quite a lot of rugby.

Some others are being rested and are being kept for part of the 23 for the first Test as well, because some of them have had a lot of rugby and need recovery time.

“We're just trying to mix and match and think two steps ahead. There's a little bit of juggling going on at the moment.

“There was a nice balance between that loose-forward trio the other day. We put the Crusaders lineout under some pressure.

“One strength has been the lineout. We know Peter's exceptional there, whether in attack or defence.

“Toby's obviously very good in the air too at lineout time. We've got plenty of variation, a lot of pace in that back-row.

“We saw Sean chase down Richie Mo'unga the other night. And at training the next day I saw Toby Faletau run away from SOB.”

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