Saturday 23 March 2019

Testing times ahead for Johnny Sexton after difficult opening night for tourists

Jonathan Sexton runs with the ball during yesterday's match against the New Zealand Barbarians
Jonathan Sexton runs with the ball during yesterday's match against the New Zealand Barbarians
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Bit of a mixed blessing being among the first out of the traps on a Lions tour: a good start against relatively weak opposition and you're in credit, but it's not a deal-breaker; finish on the wrong side of the ledger and, as in politics, if you're explaining you're losing.

So Johnny Sexton is losing already in his battle with Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar to fill the 10 shirt. Iain Henderson too is on the back foot in the race to be Alun Wyn Jones's partner in the first Test.

Rory Best is further forward than back - helped by 11 tackles made - but when he threw crooked to one lineout there was an immediate response from the Sky commentating team to identify the error, and then question why he threw to the tail in the first place. He threw it there lads because that's where it was called. And it was called there because on a soaking wet field, where clearly the ground staff are on top of their game, that's where the locals opened the door - hoping that the Lions wouldn't be able to get through it. And they were right.

Getting through the first game in one piece was the first object of the exercise. And on the injury front the Lions seem to have fared ok. It was a huge challenge to do that much having only landed in the country in midweek.

The second object was to start sifting through the runners and riders for the first Test, which is only five games away. Unquestionably the Lions will get better. So, unfortunately, will the opposition, starting with the Blues in Auckland on Wednesday; then followed in quick succession by the Crusaders, Highlanders, Maori All Blacks and Chiefs. Warren Gatland knows that by the time they get to that point his team will be quicker off the line and more coherent in their defence; and their attack shape will be a lot smoother than it was in Whangarei yesterday. It wasn't Warrenball, and it wasn't the wide game favoured by a lot of sides in New Zealand. It was somewhere in between. And it wasn't enough to put real distance between the tourists and a mixum-gatherum side who at least had a week to prepare without messing up their body clocks.

On a tour as compressed as this, however, there are casualties even when players seem fit and well. Sexton won't get a look-in again until the Crusaders game in Christchurch next Saturday, and he will need to do a Roy of the Rovers routine to sway Gatland away from Farrell.

Missing a handy enough penalty shot was a bad start for the Leinster leader who, a bit like his misfire against Scarlets in the Guinness PRO12 semi-final, put an X in a few boxes he needed to tick, from an exit kick to a kick pass for Tommy Seymour to a couple of passes to Jonathan Joseph. Such is the pressure cooker of this environment that everything is greatly magnified.

So already it's hard to see the coach going for the 10-12/Sexton-Farrell combination when he has Robbie Henshaw and Ben Te'o to mull over at inside centre. Te'o carried well here and did his reputation no harm. He was joint top carrier (13) with Ross Moriarty, with Taulepe Faletua next (11), and this trio took the podium places.

Henshaw will aim for something similar against the Blues on Wednesday, but he'll be running into a headwind. At least his fellow travellers will be lads who have acclimatised. If you can ever do that in New Zealand. Short odds against rain in Auckland.

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