“Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold.” – Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
It’s fair to assume that, when Warren Gatland returned home to New Zealand to resume his role as Chiefs boss following the disappointing 2021 Lions tour, Johnny Sexton didn’t think the pair would ever cross paths again in his playing days.
Would it have caused Sexton sleepless nights if he never got another shot at taking down a Gatland-led team? No. Will getting a chance to do so in Cardiff this afternoon add extra fuel to his fire? Most certainly.
Sexton has endured plenty of setbacks throughout his career, whether it was crushing defeats, selection decisions that didn’t go his way, or the many injuries he suffered along the way.
However, from a personal point of view, few episodes stung as much as being overlooked by Gatland for the Lions squad two years ago.
What felt like the wrong decision at the time has since proven to be the case, as Sexton’s enduring class continues to show why it was a mistake not to bring him to South Africa.
In many ways, Sexton dodged a bullet in that the turgid affair offered up made it a forgettable series, yet try telling that to the ultra-competitor, who had framed his previous Lions Test jerseys, only to tell his wife Laura that he wouldn’t hang them on the wall until after the South African tour because he wanted to have the three tours proudly placed side by side.
In time, Sexton may reflect on missing out on selection as a key reason for why he was able to play on until 38 at the World Cup later this year, yet for a man so driven, that Lions snub will always linger.
That said, he was never going to make this week about him and his grievances, but let there be no doubt that Sexton is out to remind Gatland of why he got it so badly wrong.
The Wales head coach admitted as much on Tuesday, but that won’t come as much consolation to Sexton now.
Those closest to Sexton shared his frustration, especially having seen the hard work he put in to ensure he was in the best shape possible by the time Gatland – who has never been afraid to drop a high-profile Irish star – named his squad.
One friend told us how deeply upset Sexton was with certain coverage around his issues with concussion, which were brought into the public domain by wild claims of a French neurologist, who was later forced to apologise.
Sexton spoke out about it at the time, while behind the scenes he was even more furious.
Perhaps that came into Gatland’s thinking when he opted for Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell ahead of Sexton, as he missed the end of that season following another head injury in Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Exeter.
However, the Ireland captain, who will come up against Biggar at the Principality Stadium today, was fit by the time the Lions squad was picked, which is why he was on standby duty.
If that wasn’t tough enough, Sexton put his family holiday on hold, and trained on his own, hoping to get a late call from Gatland, only for the Kiwi to look to England’s Marcus Smith when Russell was struggling with injury.
The lack of communication further muddied the waters, as Sexton, sitting in Lord’s at his first cricket match, learned of Smith’s call-up by scrolling through his phone.
One school of thought is that Ireland’s lack of representation on the Lions coaching staff counted against him. Robin McBryde was part of Gatland’s backroom team, but it’s unclear how much say Leinster’s scrum coach would have had in selecting the out-halves.
Another theory is that Gatland had such a rigid game-plan in mind to take on the Springboks that Sexton would have seen through it and challenged him to think outside the box.
The Irish players and coaches are used to how Sexton operates, with most of them welcoming that inherent drive to be successful.
However, that hasn’t always been the case on Lions tours, with then captain Sam Warburton offering a fascinating insight into how others tended to perceive Sexton.
“On the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia, some of the Welsh players came to me and said that they were finding Johnny hard to work with,” Warburton wrote in his Times UK column.
“After a while they realised that the on-field conversations stayed on the field and that was how Johnny operated, being so black and white in his opinions and observations. Off the field he was a really nice guy.
“He would often be taking aim at his own players, being direct and confrontational – which is not something I ever did as captain, and Wales were never like that as a group – but that is the beauty of the Lions: it’s a coming together of different cultures.
“For some it took a while to warm to Johnny, but, when I look back now, I realise how important he was. He set such high standards . . . ”
Gatland had already worked with Sexton on the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours, so he knew exactly what makes him tick, and although he pointed to concerns over Sexton’s ‘durability’, he has regularly shown an ability to hit the ground running when short on game-time.
Ireland will be hoping that is the case again against Wales because after Gatland ate a large slice of humble pie earlier in the week, Sexton would love nothing more than to put the cherry on top by delivering another timely masterclass.