Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sexton has plenty of work to do to make Lions squad as Warren Gatland fires warning to Irish out-half

Jonathan Sexton with Warren Gatland in 2013
Jonathan Sexton with Warren Gatland in 2013
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As a fly on the wall in Ireland's camp over the course of Monday and Tuesday, Warren Gatland was present when the news that shook a nation's confidence broke internally at Carton House.

The way the Lions coach tells it, it was all very calm as Joe Schmidt told his squad that Johnny Sexton would miss the Six Nations opener against Scotland, but while he was there on a watching brief, the news directly impacted the Lions coach too.

As Brian O'Driscoll, who toured Temple St Children's Hospital with his former Ireland and Lions boss, said: "If you're picking a Lions team now, do you pick Johnny Sexton in the squad? 100pc."

The problem for Schmidt, Gatland and of course Sexton is the 2013 starting No 10's recent injury history that has limited him to just nine appearances this season and 172 minutes of rugby since November 19.

A calf problem means he will miss this weekend's game and will probably keep him out of the round two meeting with Italy, following the hamstring issue that hampered his November and the shoulder injury that ruled him out of the summer tour of South Africa.

With Paddy Jackson set to be named at out-half this lunchtime, with Ian Keatley on the bench, the loss of Sexton weakens Ireland's Six Nations prospects. And, having warned the 31-year-old that he would need to prove his durability in order to make a Lions bid on his last visit to Ireland in December, Gatland is watching his ability to put a run together closely.

Lions coach Warren Gatland and Brian O’Driscoll with Aidan O’Brien, age 9 from Mallow, at Temple Street yesterday. The Lions have partnered with the Dublin hospital for 2017 and O’Driscoll and Gatland will be guests of honour at a fund-raising dinner at the Mansion House on March 3. Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Lions coach Warren Gatland and Brian O’Driscoll with Aidan O’Brien, age 9 from Mallow, at Temple Street yesterday. The Lions have partnered with the Dublin hospital for 2017 and O’Driscoll and Gatland will be guests of honour at a fund-raising dinner at the Mansion House on March 3. Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

"Joe just said that Johnny wasn't quite right (on Monday)," Gatland said.

"Someone of Johnny's experience and calibre, you hope he is going to get back fit and get a number of games under his belt, potentially in the Six Nations and towards the end of the season.

"He is a really quality player but there is going to be some real attrition in New Zealand and you are going to need players who are going to be able to handle what is going to be an incredibly tough and physical tour with the 10 matches.

"Hopefully we have a group of players that can last that time and you don't pick up too many injuries. That's something that we have got to be aware of.

"The next few months are important for him. It's not just Johnny, there are a number of players from the four nations who have had injuries and have found it difficult to put a consecutive part of the season together.

"Johnny has been unfortunate in the last couple of seasons in that he has picked up a few injuries, a couple of knocks to the head as well, so I'm hoping that he gets back to fitness as quickly as possible and starts to play in that Irish team and performs well.

Johnny Sexton has been limited to nine appearances this season. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton has been limited to nine appearances this season. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"We all know how good he is, and that was a conversation I had with Joe.

"He is a big part of driving that Irish team and a big part in their success, but it is good for Paddy Jackson if he improves and gets some experience.

"But Johnny is pretty important for the way he controls the game and in what he brings to the team and the best he brings out of the players around him as well. Look, he'll be disappointed himself that he's not quite right and hopefully in the next few weeks he'll start to get some game time."

O'Driscoll believes that if Sexton can show any form before the squad of around 37 is named in April he'll travel.

"In a perfect world, Johnny will play for Ireland," he said. "I haven't seen Johnny play poorly in many games over the last seven or eight years.

"That consistency is almost guaranteed with him. You'd have to ask Gats about the need for him to be playing games and finishing games.

"For me, it's an easy decision. He's one of the best No 10s in the world. Owen Farrell is likewise, so it would be great to have the two of them on a Lions tour. They bring out the best in one another, so we just have to wait and see how things pan out."

Sexton's absence places further responsibility on another Lion in Conor Murray, who will be targeted by the Scots if their pre-match talk is anything to go by.

"Murray is going to be a huge player for us," O'Driscoll said. "I was reading an interview Greig Laidlaw did yesterday and he was pretty specific as to what areas they were targeting: going after Murray, 'he's a big player for them' and with Johnny not playing.

"Their kick-contest game. . . he talked about Glasgow-Munster and Munster dominating that. So they're very much setting out what they're going after in the game.

"There's no great secrets to it, but all games are won and lost with that ball that you provide for your half-backs and subsequently your outside backs."

Gatland doesn't think it'll bother Murray too much.

"When you get someone who is playing as well as Conor has and his speed to the breakdown, his lines of running, has experience, has a great kicking game," he said.

"He was absolutely outstanding in Chicago, one of the best players on the pitch. Quality players revel in those sort of challenges - you can't hide behind the fact that there are certain players in teams that make a difference.

"If they are playing well, as an opposition coach you target certain players to limit their impact on the game.

"Conor is going to come under some scrutiny from opposition teams because they are aware of the subtle breaks he makes, how strong his kicking game is, just how he controls the game and leads the Irish team around the park. I think it is a positive if he responds to those sort of pressures, and from a coaching point of view that is what I am looking forward to.

"That is what you want, your best quality players to be able to respond to those pressures. That is sport, and in any type of sport your best players get targeted."

Irish Independent

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