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Impressive centre Te'o backs Johnny Sexton to 'grow into' Lions tour

The Ireland out-half made uncharacteristic errors against the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

BEN TE’O IS backing his former Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton to improve on this Lions tour after the Irish out-half got off to a poor start against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday.

31-year-old Sexton missed an early penalty and threw several poor passes, as well as kicking out of hand inaccurately on at least two occasions.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton was not as his best on Saturday night. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Owen Farrell then making a positive impression off the bench as Sexton’s replacement at out-half – having started the tour as the favourite to wear the 10 shirt for the Tests – it was a miserable evening for Sexton.

But England international Te’o, who shone at inside centre alongside Sexton on Saturday, has no doubt that the experienced out-half will pick things up in the coming weeks.

“I know Jonny’s a quality player,” said Te’o in Whangarei on Saturday night. “We’ve all seen the big games and how well he plays. He’s probably not happy with some of the things with how it went tonight.

“I definitely think he’s going to grow into it. He hasn’t played a lot of rugby in the last few months. A few more training sessions and he’ll be fine.”

The battle between Farrell and Sexton is weighted towards the Englishman at present, but there is no doubt Sexton will make a scrap of it before the first Test against the All Blacks on 24 June.

There were lots of signs of Sexton’s competitiveness defensively, and a few glimpses of his quality in attack on Saturday, and Te’o says he’s just happy to have the opportunity to work with both Farrell and Sexton.

“They are both very dominant players. They run it how they want to, they are very clear in what they want. I let them run the show and support them. They are both quality players and world-class.”

Ben Te'o Te'o was a standout performer in Whangarei. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Te’o himself made a very positive first impression on Saturday night in Whangarei, leading the way for the Lions with a chart-topping 84 metres gained with ball in hand.

His physical dynamism was once again eye-opening, while Te’o backed up Warren Gatland’s repeated insistence that the Worcester midfielder is about more than just boshing the ball up.

“One of my strengths is being a ball-carrier, lots of people might say I don’t do some of the other things,” said Te’o. Those are things I am always trying to work on, but sometimes you can show them in certain games, sometimes you just have to graft hard.

“Today you might have seen a little bit and those are things I am working on constantly in England camp and I learn from some of the people around me.”

But Te’o is realistic enough to understand that making an impression against the Provincial Barbarians, many of whom have been playing amateur club rugby recently, is very different to shining against the Blues.

The truth is that players who impress on Wednesday at Eden Park in the Lions’ second game of the tour will get a greater boost in the overall pecking order.

“Yes, you might be slightly disadvantaged compared to if you are playing on Wednesday,” said Te’o in Whangarei. “In teams like this, with so many special players, you just have to take your chances, you just have to do what you are going to do.

Ben Te'o Te'o is looking forward to facing stronger opposition. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Maybe you should have got to the semi-finals or finals with your club team, and you’d be playing on Wednesday. Get knocked out early, you play in this first game.”

And the fact that Wednesday night’s team, which is set to include the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Maro Itoje, Liam Williams and Conor Murray, will have finally overcome any remaining jet lag should make them more effective.

“If I’m honest, the last three days have been really tough,” said Te’o on Saturday night. “Waking up at one in the morning, some guys getting one or two hours sleep. Boys really are really tired before training, before games.

“But we’ve got to push through and over the next few days, it’s going to get a lot easier. The guys playing on Wednesday will probably be feeling a lot better than the guys playing today.”

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Murray Kinsella

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