Tuesday 20 February 2018

Sexton sets off on journey that may define him

Out-half determined to leave indelible mark on Lions as he prepares for 'real debut' against Western Force

Jonathan Sexton autographs a gaelic football for eight-year-old Odhran Neville as Jamie Heaslip looks on following the Lions’ victory over the Barbarians in Hong Kong on Saturday
Jonathan Sexton autographs a gaelic football for eight-year-old Odhran Neville as Jamie Heaslip looks on following the Lions’ victory over the Barbarians in Hong Kong on Saturday
Conor George

Conor George

JONATHAN SEXTON'S easy smile belied the emotions the 27-year-old out-half was clearly experiencing in the aftermath of his Lions debut.

"Running around like a headless chicken and tiring myself out" is his own summation of his 20-minute cameo appearance against the Barbarians, a game that took place in brutal heat and humidity (94pc) in Hong Kong on Saturday.

He wore the pride at becoming a Lion with comfort but, by his own admission, his "real" debut comes on Wednesday when he starts for the first time against Super 15 side Western Force.

That qualification in his mind is the competitor in Sexton coming to the fore. Being the best is what fuels his appetite, and coming off the bench in a game is never going to satisfy that craving.

"It's a dream come true to play for the Lions and I'm delighted to get the first one under the belt. But they're strange circumstances to come on, when the game was over like that."

Sexton's season has been one of contrasting emotions and experiences. After bathing in the positivity of Ireland's winning start to the Six Nations, his season was interrupted by a series of injuries that threatened to derail his ambitions.

The upside to that anguish is that he finished the season surrounded by silverware and is that most precious of Lions tourist – fresh.

"It feels like the middle of my season really in many ways. I missed 10 weeks because of injuries and only came back in for the last few weeks with Leinster," he said.

"Thankfully, I felt I was coming into some good form at the end of the season. It will take a couple of games to get used to playing with this group of boys, but I'm fresh and looking forward to the rest of the tour."

The "rest of the tour" starts against the Force in Perth on Wednesday. As one of the only two recognised out-halves in the squad, Sexton is likely to be involved in all 10 games – "hopefully, after missing all that time I'll be happy to double up" – and he's excited at being handed a starting shirt.

"Warren (Gatland) said before the game that it's special to get your first cap. Obviously it's a little bit more special to start, but he said the guys on the bench had a responsibility to make the starters have a special night.

"We'll now get a chance to start maybe on Wednesday and that will be a very special first start for everyone."

Sexton has been building four years to this moment.

From the instant he stepped off the bench in 2009 and announced his presence as a big-game player with Leinster in their ground-breaking Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster at Croke Park, it has been about becoming the best at his craft.

His progression has been an exercise in determination and it is on his reliable shoulders the Lions will place their expectations.

Forwards might well win matches, but only if their out-half is conducting them with composure, with flair, and ideally, with inspiration.

Sexton, of course, joined the party late as he and his Leinster colleagues had prior engagements. It had, he admitted, caused some teething problems during his second-half cameo.


"At times in the second half I was going across, and the guys in Leinster know to run guys on the outside, but a couple of boys dropped under. That will just come from getting used to playing with each other.

"Little things like that we'll have to iron out over the next few days."

To this end, the relationship between Sexton and Owen Farrell is critical. Farrell has enjoyed the benefit of being in camp for a number of weeks while Sexton was busy adding to his medal haul with the Amlin Challenge Cup and Pro12 titles.

That he and Farrell are the only two recognised No 10s in the squad means any of the traditional rivalry between the out-halves has to be shelved for the duration of the tour.

"We have to work together for the team's sake, to get the team as best prepared as possible," said Sexton.

"I've been saying all along it's not really '10 against 10'. He'll go out and try his best and he'll rely on the team and they'll rely on him, and it'll be the same for me. To make sure that we're doing the same things so that the lads aren't getting confused, we have to be working in tandem.

"We've built up a good relationship already. We have trained a lot together, kicked a lot together after training, and so after a few days we've already spent a lot of time together.

"Whoever plays better over the next few weeks will get the nod for the Test but I'm sure we'll both play a part in the games along the way and in the Test series."

Sexton is likely to be joined in starting on Wednesday by those Irish colleagues who also came off the bench against the Barbarians – Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip – in what is going to be a much tougher examination of the Lions' credentials.

"In many ways it's even more special to play against the Lions than with them because these boys will never play against the Lions again," mused Sexton.

"There are a lot of young guys in our squad that will sort of think 'maybe I'll get another tour', but that's not the case with the Reds or Australia. So from that point of view we're going to be up against a team that are really motivated.

"The Force have improved massively over the last couple of years and this will be the biggest game of their season in many ways. We'll have to be ready for that and balance that with getting ourselves right and making sure we're in the right place."

Much has been made of the conditions Saturday's game was played in, and it was demanding for the players with humidity topping 94pc for much of the game and never dropping below 88pc.

The difficulty of operating in such conditions took even those who started the game on the bench by surprise.

"I was wondering why there were so many dropped balls because we were on the sideline and it felt dry," Sexton added. "But once you get on you're just soaked and the ball is so slippery ... it was really difficult to get to grips with it."

The Barbarians were appalling and offered nothing in the way of a challenge for the Lions, who ran in eight tries, including a first score in 12 Lions games for captain Paul O'Connell.

O'Connell opened the scoring in the first half and Mike Phillips followed his lead with tries on either side of half-time – the first-half try was a fantastic show-and-go from the scrum-half, and his lead was followed by his Welsh team-mates as Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert (two), Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn Jones completed the rout.

LIONS – S Hogg 7; A Cuthbert 7, J Davies 8, J Roberts 7 (G North 7, 66) 6, S Maitland 6; O Farrell 6 (J Sexton 6, 57), M Phillips 8 (C Murray 8, 57); M Vuniploa 7(C Healy 7, 55), R Hibbard 7 (T Youngs 7, 53), A Jones 8 (M Stevens 7, 55); R Gray 7, P O'Connell 7 (capt) (AW Jones 7, 63); D Lydiate 8, J Tipuric 8, T Faletau 7 (J Heaslip 7, 63).

BARBARIANS – J Payne; J Rokocoko, E Daly, C Laulala (J Hook 69), T Ngwenya (M Tindall 59); N Evans, D Yachvili (K Fotuali'i 53); P James (D Jones 58), S Brits (L Ghiraldini 45), M Castrogiovanni (A Lo Cicero 70); M Wentzel (J Hamilton 58), D Mumm; S Manoa, S Jones (I Harinordoquy 53), S Parisse (capt).

Ref: S Walsh (Australia).

Irish Independent

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