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Analysis: Sexton-Farrell axis makes the difference against All Blacks

The 10-12 combination was integral in the key attacking moments of the second Test win.

WARREN GATLAND HAD been tempted to unleash Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as a 10-12 pairing in the first Test against the All Blacks and based on the evidence in Wellington on Saturday night, he might have a few regrets.

The link between these two intelligent playmakers was pivotal in helping the Lions to their 24-21 win and with the All Blacks’ midfield now down a few bodies, Steve Hansen will have real concerns about their partnership ahead of the final Test next weekend.

Sexton and Farrell linked well with the brilliant Jonathan Davies in the 13 shirt too, and the midfield could be an area of strength in Test three.

Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell celebrate winning Farrell and Sexton were crucial in the Lions' win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Saturday’s game at Westpac Stadium was an odd one for many reasons, but among them was a ball-in-play time of just 24 minutes and 24 seconds.

The average per match at the most recent World Cup was 34 minutes and 55 seconds, the average in this year’s Six Nations was 39 minutes and 17 seconds, while last weekend’s first Lions Test had a ball-in-play time of 39 minutes and 10 seconds.

So, the amount of time the ball was actually in play in Wellington was exceptionally low, meaning that both teams were going to need to be clinical in creating and taking chances.

Going against the grain of this tour so far, it was the Lions who achieved that to a greater degree and the influence of the Sexton-Farrell axis was key.

Even with the All Blacks reduced to 14 men for much of the game, it was a real achievement for the Lions to out try-score them 2-0 and that feat will provide the tourists with confidence before the final Test.


Sexton was superb on his return to the Lions’ Test 10 shirt after benching in the opening clash with the Kiwis, and himself and Farrell almost instantly formed a threatening connection as they linked up again in the midfield.

Link 1

We get a glimpse of what is to come with the screen play above and it’s worth studying this passage in detail, as the Lions are essentially laying a trap for later in the game.

Sexton is at first receiver and his first few steps after taking the pass from Conor Murray are important, as he accelerates square up the pitch [as indicated by the white arrow below], immediately interesting the defence in front of him.


Outside Sexton, we can see that Davies is beginning to run a line [red above] towards the out-half’s right shoulder and in across the front Farrell, offering a short passing option for Sexton.

Farrell is already starting to bounce out behind Davies [yellow], allowing the 13 to get across him and providing a rapidly-changing picture for the defence.

This kind of screen play is very basic – Farrell and Saracens are masters – but the execution from the Lions here is superb. Sexton is a threat, Davies is a threat and Farrell out the back is a threat.


As we can see above, the timing of Davies’ run combined with Sexton darting at the line has drawn Sonny Bill Williams inwards and he bites down [blue arrow] on Davies’ line just as Sexton releases the ball out the back door to Farrell.

Farrell is now on the outside shoulder of Williams in the image below and that in turn means Anton Lienert-Brown has to turn in and worry about the Lions 12.


Farrell is threatening Lienert-Brown’s inside shoulder, tying him down briefly, and though the All Blacks centre does well to recover his feet and drift out onto Lions fullback Liam Williams after Farrell passes, the Lions make good gains.

Mixing it up

Moments later, we see Sexton and Farrell switching roles in a similar play.

Link 2

As we saw in the Crusader game, when Sexton and Farrell linked up superbly at 10 and 12, they are comfortable mixing up who plays at first receiver in phase play.

It’s Farrell who fills the role this time and he echoes Sexton’s previous good work in running square up the field  [white below], really interesting the defence.


His Saracens team-mate Jamie George is running the short, hard line to Farrell’s right shoulder [red above] and it’s important to remember him for later, as he plays such a key role running this kind of line in the first Lions try.

Fellow Sarries man Mako Vunipola is running a similar line further out from Farrell [also red] and that adds another stress for the defence, while Sexton fills the role of the ‘second wave’ attacker in behind.

Below, we can see how George and Vunipola’s well-timed lines have made life difficult for the defence.


Sam Whitelock and Joe Moody have both sat down on those decoy runners [as indicated by the blue arrows] to cover the possible flat pass from Farrell to George or Vunipola, but as we have seen the pass goes out the back door again.

Unfortunately for the Lions, the chain breaks down as Sexton attempts to hit Davies running a hard line to his right.


Davies seems to take his eyes off the ball as he looks up at a clear hole in the defence in front of him and Sexton’s pass doesn’t stick, meaning a real missed opportunity.

We can see the numbers the Lions have wide on the right in the freeze frame above, with just three viable defenders in the All Blacks’ frontline, as well as fullback Isreal Dagg in behind and Aaron Smith working hard to sweep across.

The Farrell-Sexton axis creates the chance, but the Lions let this one slip. Fortunately for Gatland’s side, they were more clinical later in the game.

Sexton loop

It’s famous because it can be so effective and the Sexton loop came into play in Wellington on Saturday.

The first time Sexton looped off Farrell, there was a good read from Rieko Ioane to shut the out-half down, as we see below.

Loop 1

Sexton is back at first receiver here and he runs the loop around Farrell, with fullback Williams providing a short option off the inside centre as Sexton makes his way behind him.

However, Ioane defends the situation well.

Loop 1.1

The All Blacks wing doesn’t overcommit to Williams on the short line, instead giving himself options.

As we can see above, Ioane will have enough time to re-adjust and tackle in on Williams if Farrell hits the fullback short, while Ioane can also get up outside Williams to tackle Sexton if the out-half gets the ball back from Farrell.

That proves to be the case and Ioane makes a really strong tackle on Sexton. But the Lions’ dual playmakers weren’t ready to give up on the loop yet and it bore fruit later in the game.

First try

The Lions’ alarming error rate after Sonny Bill Williams’ red card and their shocking discipline meant they didn’t have many further attacking opportunities until the final quarter approached, when they struck brilliantly for their two tries.

The first featured a loop and a screen play from the Sexton-Farrell axis.

Try 1

Both of the Lions’ tries in the second Test came from lineout platforms, a source that will be crucial again next weekend.

Sam Warburton was the most used jumper for the Lions at lineout time, taking four balls out of touch, and the clean possession in this instance is ideal for the backline to finally fire.

The All Blacks actually manage Sexton and Farrell’s loop play well initially.

Drift D

As we can see above, the Kiwis get their drift defence working and Aaron Cruden slides onto Farrell, freeing replacement centre Ngani Laumape to slip out onto Davies.

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That in turn means Lienert-Brown can come up outside Davies and look to deal with Sexton coming around the back of Farrell or slide out onto Elliot Daly.

When Sexton gets the ball back, there is actually a glimpse of an opportunity for him to have a crack with the ball in hand.

We can see below that Lienert-Brown has committed early to Daly [blue] as the Kiwis drift hard.

Johnny Pass

There is a glimmer of space in behind him for Sexton to make a diagonal dart [white] but, to be fair, Cruden has worked into a position to tackle him, so the Lions out-half shifts the ball on to Daly.

There’s just enough delay on Sexton’s pass to keep Lienert-Brown’s head turned inwards and that contributes to the All Blacks centre missing his tackle on Daly when Sexton does release the ball.

Daly shows typically excellent balance to ride the contact from Lienert-Brown and then sharp handling skills to slip the ball to Liam Williams as Ioane bites in on the England wing.

Lions fullback Williams then frees Anthony Watson for a rare gallop down the touchline, although he might question whether he could have done more to tie down Beauden Barrett before passing.

After Barrett tackles Watson in the 22, the Lions take a single one-out phase off Murray coming back to the left, before Sexton and Farrell strike again.


We can see the Lions midfield working as they move into position above.

Sexton [white] is arcing around to get into a good first receiver position, while Farrell [yellow] is communicating with Davies [red] that he wants the outside centre to run another hard line in front of him to create that screen play again.

Farrell’s positioning on this phase is an important point.


Note how much deeper Farrell is in this instance compared to our earlier examples of the screen plays.

Sexton is still looking to interest the defence himself, meaning he has to pull the pass almost vertically backwards.


Farrell wants to give himself more time on the ball here in order to ensure he can send a pass wide to the left, where the Lions have targeted with their attack from the lineout – number eight Taulupe Faletau holding his width there.

The space is clear from the Lions’ point of view – remember, it is 14 v 14 at this time, so it’s not simply because of a numerical advantage.


As we see above, Williams [white] is signalling for the ball from Farrell and the inside centre makes a good decision to skip Sam Warburton and go direct to his fullback.

The pass from Farrell isn’t perfect, but it gets the ball into the area of the pitch where the Lions can really threaten.

Williams then feeds Faletau and the superb number eight produces an excellent finish past last man Isreal Dagg for a vital try.

Mirror screen

Another Barrett penalty meant the All Blacks moved back into a seven-point lead in the 67th minute, ensuring the Lions desperately needed to find more inspiration.

Again, Sexton and Farrell were instrumental.

The Lions’ second try was also off a left-hand side lineout and again they played off the top, only to hit the middle of the park through Davies on first phase this time, then use a forward pod to carry around the corner.

On third phase, Sexton and Farrell had organised themselves to strike.

Try 2

The set-up is very familiar to us, but this time the Lions take a different option.

As Hansen reminded us before the second Test, “the opposition give you all the options from what they do on defence,” and that proves to be the case here for the Lions.

The reverse angle below gives us a nice view of the breakdown in the All Blacks’ defence, of that option they give the Lions.


It’s the inexperienced Laumape who provides the cue for the Lions as he targets Farrell out the back door of George [running the red line below], drifting to the outside of the hooker just a hint too early.

Laumape has seen the Lions’ success when Sexton has gone out the back to Farrell over the course of the game and he’s eager to get to the inside centre early and make a dominant ball-and-all hit.


We can see that he has overshot George to get at Farrell [blue] just as the hooker is receiving the late, flat pass from Sexton.

Once again, the out-half has done an excellent job here, attacking the line [white below] before passing.

Sexton Straight

That has completely sat down replacement All Blacks back row Ardie Savea, meaning that Laumape’s decision-making has to be perfect.

With Farrell running that familiar line [yellow above], bouncing out behind the front-door option, it’s a tough situation for the All Blacks’ centre and particularly given that the Lions have gone out the back door every time before.

George’s line is excellent as he ensures he doesn’t over-run the possible Sexton pass, something we’ve seen in most of these examples.

The hooker breaks through the All Blacks defence and though the sweeping TJ Perenara tackles him, with Barrett attempting to assist, the platform is there for the Lions to score.

Murray’s finish is obviously excellent but even still, Farrell and Sexton have an effect.

Off Ball

Farrell is the first supporting Lions player to arrive to the breakdown in a viable position to clear out, but Perenara gets back to his feet and attempts to back away and into the defensive line immediately.

Keen to buy the Lions time, Farrell dives at Perenara’s feet and just briefly grabs the scrum-half’s left ankle, impeding him, as circled below.


Perenara frees himself as Farrell opts to release for fear of giving up an obvious penalty, but as the scrum-half breaks away he overcompensates and leaves a gap at the fringe of the ruck.

Murray has been biding his time for this opportunity all series long and he pounces on it superbly, bursting through the gap.

Sexton aids his passage just a little more at the very front of the breakdown.


As Murray snipes, we can see above that Sexton has backed into Savea over on the other edge of the breakdown.

The Lions out-half is obviously getting out of Murray’s way here, but it’s typically intelligent play from Sexton as he impedes Savea from better access to the scrum-half.

By the time Savea does get a grip on Murray, he is already diving over the line for the try that levelled the game at 21-21 and provided the Lions with the opportunity to go on and grab a memorable victory.

On and off the ball, the influence of the Sexton-Farrell axis told.

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Murray Kinsella

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