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Time got the better of Sexton - not just Farrell, Russell and Biggar

Irish captain’s omission from Warren Gatland’s squad was tough but at 35 his durability has come into question.

Gatland and Sexton on the 2017 tour.
Gatland and Sexton on the 2017 tour.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THERE IS AN old story about Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson that has never aged.

It dates back to a January evening in 1988, a lurid setting in Atlantic City, where the high rollers from New York’s showbiz set had forked out top dollar for ringside seats. Holmes, remember, had more or less finished Muhammad Ali’s career eight years earlier. Now he was the one taking a beating as Barbara Streisand, John McEnroe and Joe DiMaggio looked on.

For three rounds, Holmes tugged at Tyson’s arms; flicked his head this way and that and did his best to impersonate a young man. Then came the fourth; a one-sided slaughter that forced Streisand to bow her head and avert her eyes. “Tyson is getting better,” she said. “Larry’s just getting older.”

Tyson was 21; Holmes 38.

At 12.44 this afternoon, the ghost of Larry Holmes intruded into Johnny Sexton’s world. This old fighter is 35, soon to turn 36. Around him, Finn Russell, Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar were checking their birth certs and seeing that they compared favourably.

That’s the one thing they had over Sexton. In terms of their ability to kick, well no one did that better than the Irish captain in this year’s Six Nations – 86 per cent of his efforts landing successfully between the posts. Against England in round five, he was imperious; against France in round two, he was absent – injured.

Injury has struck four times in his five starts for Leinster this year. It isn’t Russell, Farrell or Biggar who have defeated him; it’s time.

It could still be argued that he still deserves to tour, that Russell is the most overrated player in the world, a flaky operator who is liable to create magic and mayhem in the same move never mind the one game. You could also point to the fact that Farrell has lost form and that Biggar is a poor man’s Sexton and you’d be making a compelling case.

But it’s worth pointing out that the most impressive outhalf in action last weekend wasn’t Sexton – who was injured, nor was it Biggar, Russell or Farrell. George Ford, Europe’s most underrated No10, shone for Leicester. He has as much, if not more, reason to feel aggrieved this evening than his Irish rival.

warren-gatland Gatland at today's press conference. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Thankfully the Sexton omission hasn’t led to a nationalistic outpouring of anger, like the kind we saw when Brian O’Driscoll was left out of the deciding test of the 2013 tour. Speaking to Gatland about this a couple of years ago, the Lions coach was evidently still shaken by this idea that he would make a selection call based on some supposed anti-Irishness lurking inside him.

“I’m really reflective on the life I’ve had and one of the things that have always driven me has been this desire to give my kids the best chance in life I possibly could,” Gatland said. “And a large reason I’ve been able to do that is because Ireland gave me chances. Irish rugby got me on the (coaching) ladder. People said I was upset about the whole (dismissal) scenario. But that was 20 years ago, a long time.”

He was smiling knowingly at this stage, laughing too at the irony of a fire alarm going off as he spoke about the day he dropped one of this country’s greatest heroes. Then his chin collapsed to his chest as the memory of the abusive messages hit him again.

“Anybody who thinks I was picking a Lions team to win a series, and had thoughts about leaving Irish players out of the side, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. In fact it’s bonkers. All five coaches were unanimous on the selection and I said after we had taken it that there could be a bit of a falling out over this. But I had no idea how vitriolic people could be. 

“It’s amazing how different countries reacted to that news. I went to New Zealand after that tour. No one mentioned the decision but in Ireland, people were up in arms. Soon after, I went on the Late, Late Show, and it felt as though I had to beg for forgiveness. There was no anti-Irish thing, I can promise you that.”

Nor was there in this selection for the summer tour to South Africa. Sexton, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander, you could make a case for them all.

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garry-ringrose Garry Ringrose was unlucky to miss out. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But you could also put together a strong argument to say Kyle Sinckler, Billy Vunipola, Jonny May and Henry Slade were unlucky. Their exclusion doesn’t make Gatland anti-English, nor does Jonny Gray’s omission make him anti-Scottish. The truth is that Sinckler, the Bristol Bears and England tight-head prop, is probably even more unfortunate than Sexton, Ryan, Stander or any of the omitted Irishmen.

The deepest truth of all is that this was the toughest Lions squad to select since 1989, the last time all four nations were similar in quality. In the years in-between, Ireland (1990s) and Scotland (2000-17) shared the role of providing a small presence, just two Irishmen making the ’93 tour.

In 2017, Scotland’s limited contribution to the squad was explained by their inability to win big matches away from home but this year they won in Twickenham and Paris, hence their deserved return of eight players in the 37-man party.

Eleven seats on the plane are reserved for Englishmen, reflective of the fact they won the 2020 Six Nations and reached the World Cup final a year earlier; Wales’s journey to the semi-finals of that tournament, as well as this year’s Six Nations championship success justifies their contribution of 10 players.

Ireland have eight and even if some – Bundee Aki, Jack Conan and Andrew Porter – surprised commentators across the water, you can see the logic in Gatland picking them, Aki possessing an iron-clad belief, Conan a fine footballing brain, Porter the ability to make a massive impact off the bench.

Those who missed out didn’t do so because they lack ability, more so because their form has dipped – or in Sexton’s case because when 11 July comes around, there will be 36 candles on his birthday cake. 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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