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Analysis: Sexton-Farrell combination can unlock the All Blacks

The playmaking pair linked superbly against the Crusaders last weekend.

IF WARREN GATLAND is serious about unlocking the All Blacks’ defence then starting Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together is the right decision.

Ben Te’o has had an impressive impact on this tour, but including Farrell at 12 would allow the Lions to give the All Blacks’ defence a more strenuous test.

Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton The two main men. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Englishman will be fully fit for the first Test, according to Warren Gatland, and he is now the favourite to start at out-half, though the Lions must consider him at inside centre.

While other options allow Gatland’s side to operate with more physicality, starting Sexton and Farrell as the 10-12 combination would bring far greater creativity and playmaking skills to the Lions mix, as well as vastly improved tactical leadership.

With Leigh Halfpenny set to start at fullback in the Test series, the Lions won’t have a second playmaker in that position, and the 50 minutes of the Sexton-Farrell link we saw against the Crusaders showed how important that is.

Farrell is a superb out-half and if it was only possible to include one of these players in the Test team, then the Englishman would almost certainly be the first choice.

Gatland doesn’t have that limit in place, however, and getting both Sexton and Farrell onto the pitch would not only mean the Lions having their best players against the All Blacks, but also a pairing that has shown real signs of an effective understanding.

FS Hands

We get a glimpse of the value of having both Sexton and Farrell on the pitch in the clip above, as they use their hands to send Peter O’Mahony and Te’o running into space wide on the left.

The Crusaders are in a poor situation defensively, but Sexton and Farrell accentuate that.

As we’ve discussed before, the Lions have had problems with players running diagonally across the pitch and eating up space, rather than fixing defenders and preserving that space on the outside.

Here, Sexton and Farrell show how it’s done.

FS Hands

As indicated by the white arrow above, Sexton’s first few steps are at the inside shoulder of Jack Goodhue – who has just slipped. The Ireland out-half is not completely square up the pitch but he’s doing enough to hold Goodhue from immediately drifting and that gives Farrell more space.

Farrell starts flat to Sexton as he is keen to draw up Crusaders edge defender Seta Tamanivalu. That obviously places Farrell’s own skills under pressure, but he is confident that he can catch and pass with the Crusaders wing thundering at him.

With a different player here, it’s debatable whether the Lions would have got the pass away.

The general quality of their backline passing has not been especially impressive on this tour, but here Farrell backs himself to get flat, draw up Tamanivalu and send the Lions into space.

FS Te'o

The incident above is a variation on that theme, as Farrell takes first receiver Sexton’s pass behind a double screen of forward runners and sends Te’o into a hole in the Crusaders defence.

It’s subtle from Farrell, but his body shape and work on the ball before passing is key here.

Farrell

Freezing the frame just before Farrell [circled in white] passes, we can see why it’s so difficult for the two Crusaders defenders here [in red].

Farrell takes one step upfield after catching the ball and that draws Codie Taylor onto him as the Crusaders hooker advances at pace.

On the outside of Taylor is Jordan Taufua, and his read is that Farrell is going to miss Te’o and pass wider. Indeed, Farrell’s body language in the image above is difficult to read – with options to carry himself, go to Te’o at the front door or pass longer out the back.

With Te’o picking an excellent direct line off Farrell’s right shoulder, the Englishman produces a lovely short pass.

There’s an important point in that – playing Farrell at 12 does not mean the Lions are sacrificing the ability to play direct. Te’o and Jonathan Davies both offer extremely direct, intelligent lines from the 13 shirt and with Sexton and Farrell making life more difficult for the defenders, those lines could be even more effective.

So we’re seeing the value of Farrell playing in the ’12′ role outside Sexton, but this combination can be very fluid and only a couple of phases later, we see the pair swapping.

Faz Sexton

Farrell is at first receiver this time, but again we see the sheer effectiveness of having a second playmaker in the backline.

Farrell does a superb job initially as that first receiver, taking the pass from Conor Murray and then accelerating at the Crusaders’ defence, immediately adding a stress for them.

Faz Accelerate

Farrell’s dart completely commits Goodhue to the tackle and also briefly ties down Taufua, preventing him from hammering straight through and onto Sexton, who is hovering behind, ready to drift across the back of George Kruis [5].

Once he receives the ball from Farrell, Sexton has to actually glide across behind Kruis, but as soon as he does so there is a subtle straightening step at the defence, almost mimicking what Farrell has done.

Sexton Accelerate

Again, it commits the inside defender – Luke Romano here – and briefly sits down the second defender on the outside – Heiden Bedwell-Curtis in this case.

Sexton gets smashed for his troubles just as he releases the ball, but it’s entirely worth it as Sean O’Brien is then able to execute the two-on-one on the left edge.

Seeing Sexton in this ’12′ role is fascinating, particularly with a player as good as Farrell at first receiver.

Ireland and Sexton are huge fans of the loop play and one of the major reasons for this is the relative lack of creativity further out their backline.

By looping off the midfield, Sexton can actually act as both the first receiver and a playmaker further out the line, essentially making two decisions in the very same phase of play before meeting the defence.

With someone like Farrell at first receiver, or indeed outside him at 12, Sexton doesn’t have to worry about that and can simply deliver his decision-making quality in one focused moment.

Below, we see another example of that.

Creativity

In this passage, the Lions play out the back of one of their three-man forward pods that have been so prevalent on this tour.

Key to these pods is having a central figure who can carry or pass, giving the Lions options every time. In this case, Ken Owens [white below] is the central forward, with CJ Stander and Jack McGrath [red] either side of him.

Creative.1

We can see Farrell hovering out the back of Owens and the hooker swivels to hit the Lions 10.

The Lions have found this kind of shape well on this tour, but their execution on this ‘second wave’ when a back receives the pass from a forward has not always been particularly strong.

Again, one of the issues has been players finding creative solutions and we’ve sometimes seen the Lions crab diagonally across the pitch. While the ball may be getting to wide channels, the space is being eaten up and the defence has often been able to simply drift across without any great stress.

Indeed, the Lions appear to be in danger of committing the same sin here.

Creative.2

Sexton recognises the danger, however, and also understands that the Crusaders defence is drifting and is therefore susceptible to a change of line from him. Most promisingly for the Lions, Farrell makes exactly the same read of the situation at the same time.

That means that Farrell continues on his diagonal line, eager to fully draw Crusaders hooker Ben Funnell onto him, but Sexton changes his line to run a switch play.

Farrell delays his pass perfectly, while Sexton’s choice of running line is superb.

Creative.3

The Ireland international doesn’t actually ‘switch’ back into traffic off Farrell, instead arcing slightly inside him and then immediately getting back to the outside, away from the defenders who are drifting across inside Funnell.

Sexton’s arc back to the outside takes him clear of Michael Alaalatoa, before he darts beyond Tamanivalu and feeds Te’o on the outside.

These examples of understanding between Farrell and Sexton are exciting for the Lions and it’s a combination that Gatland must pursue in the Test series.

Naturally, having both players on the pitch would increase the quality of the Lions’ kicking game, while Farrell is more than capable of carrying the ball at inside centre if required to do so – as he has shown for England.

The defensive part of the combination would be the biggest concern, particularly after Goodhue cut between the pair for a big linebreak two weekends ago.

But that incident looked to come on account of a simple misread by Farrell, as well as Goodhue’s alarming footwork and acceleration, and the Englishman has shown that he is an excellent defender at 12 at Test level.

Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton Farrell is the favourite to start at out-half. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton and Farrell are both big defensive players, with the Irishman’s reads and hits from the edge of the phase play defence having been a particular highlight against the Crusaders.

Farrell, meanwhile, is the energetic and demanding heartbeat of this Lions squad and he is exactly the kind of player Andy Farrell is looking for as a defensive leader for the Test series.

The quality of the Lions’ communication would be notably increased by having both Farrell and Sexton on the pitch, and there is little concern that the pair might clash in terms of tactical decision-making.

Indeed, they are good friends and their respect for each other as players is obvious.

The wisest money is on Ben Te’o to start the Tests at 12, with Farrell at 10 but the ballsy call would be to go with Sexton and Farrell.

It’s certainly the combination that the All Blacks would be least comfortable defending against.

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