Thursday 18 July 2019

Sexton expects first Test against All Blacks to be toughest game of his career

Johnny Sexton, centre, is ready to partner Owen Farrell for the British and Irish Lions
Johnny Sexton, centre, is ready to partner Owen Farrell for the British and Irish Lions

Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell have less than an hour's rugby in tandem but are ready to forge a combination to sink the All Blacks.

Ireland fly-half Sexton believes Saturday's first British and Irish Lions Test against New Zealand in Auckland will be the toughest challenge of his career.

The Leinster playmaker could yet start at fly-half with Farrell at 12, after Lions boss Warren Gatland moved to allay fears over the England star's thigh injury.

The Lions have continued to insist Sexton and Farrell have not trained to pair up at 10 and 12, and that their only time in harness has been when thrown together due to injury in the 12-3 Crusaders win.

"We played 50 minutes together against the Crusaders and I think we went well together," said Sexton of his fledgling partnership with Farrell.

"At times, he was at 10 and I was able to be his eyes and at other times, I was at 10 and he was able to be mine.

"It's great when you've got somebody at 12 who can help you out that much.

"When he was at 10, I tried to help him as well. I thought we played well together but it's up to the coaches now.

"We all want to play in the Test team, but it's a 23-man game as well. I'm sure there will be different combinations.

"If you know the game like Owen does, if he plays 10 or 12, he'll be a huge asset to any team. He's a top-class player.

"It's going to be obviously the toughest game I'd say I have ever played.

"I have got to make it that way as well. It's all geared up towards next week."

Sexton struggled for fluency in the tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians, but immediately found his rhythm alongside Farrell in the Crusaders victory.

The Ireland stalwart impressed again in Saturday's 32-10 win over the Maori All Blacks, and is now itching to face the All Blacks.

Sexton insisted he never lost faith in his ability to shake off one loose performance in order to chase Test match selection.

"The Barbarians game was tough because we arrived on Wednesday and we were expected to play on the Saturday," said Sexton.

"It was a disappointing start. I didn't know you lose your mojo after one bad game.

When things are bad you get written off - I have been written off hundreds of times in my career and I will probably continue to be until the end at different stages.

"But it is important you take it with a pinch of salt at times because you know if you work as hard as you always do, when things are going well it will eventually turn."

The Lions excelled in their comprehensive dismantling of the Maori, but Sexton insisted that will not have altered the All Blacks' view of the tourists.

Asked if the Maori victory would have earned New Zealand's respect, Sexton said: "I don't think so, no. The only way you earn their respect is by beating them.

"This is a much bigger challenge than the 2013 tour; the guys that were there can use the experience they gained with regards to the pressure.

"It's a huge opportunity that doesn't come by very often, there's been legends of New Zealand who have never played the Lions and they'll be well aware of that.

"I'm sure they'll be under big pressure as well with the expectation of trying to live up to what happened 12 years ago and it's a rugby mad country so the pressure is on."

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