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Sexton suddenly the main man for the Lions with Farrell a doubt

The England international has emerged as a doubt for the first Test.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rotorua

THE FIRST GUY the Lions definitely didn’t want to lose was Billy Vunipola, but the Saracens number eight opted for shoulder surgery and missed the tour.

The second guy Warren Gatland definitely didn’t want to lose was Owen Farrell, but the Saracens playmaker is now a doubt for the first Test after injuring his quad in training.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates winning Sexton will run the show from 10 this weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A grade-one strain generally takes somewhere in the region of a week to 10 days to heal and with the opening Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park just nine days away, it’s a worrying time for Gatland.

Farrell is the energetic and confident heartbeat of this Lions squad and to lose him, even for the first Test, would be a major blow. While it might have been, and may still be, that the Englishman was going to feature at 12 for the Lions, Gatland does at least have another pretty handy out-half knocking about the place.

Suddenly, Johnny Sexton’s importance to this squad grows immeasurably.

He had already been named to start at out-half against the Māori All Blacks on Saturday, a week before the first Test, but Sexton now also looks like wearing 10 for the Lions at Eden Park on 24 June.

As Gatland acknowledged when naming his team to face the Māori, Sexton was off colour in Leinster’s Pro12 semi-final defeat to Scarlets and again in the Lions’ tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians.

But his “mojo” was back in a more confident display off the bench against the Crusaders, according to Gatland, when Sexton linked intuitively with Farrell in a 10-12 combination that promised so much for the Lions.

With Farrell now in a real race against time to be fit for the first Test, Sexton has been launched into prime position to lead the tourists into the series against the All Blacks.

And while many were backing Farrell to start the Tests at out-half, those in the know in New Zealand have been expecting Sexton to be the man in the 10 shirt.

Warren Gatland and Jonathan Sexton Gatland and Sexton on the training pitch. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Writing in his column for SA Rugby magazine, former Ireland assistant coach and current Hurricanes assistant John Plumtree said that he thought it likely Sexton would start at out-half for the Lions.

While that same column indicated Plumtree’s belief that Beauden Barrett would do to the Lions what Dan Carter did to them in 2005 – indeed, he thinks Barrett is a better player than Carter was – the Hurricanes coach also pointed to Sexton’s strengths.

“Beauden is likely to come up against Johnny Sexton, who I worked with at Ireland. Johnny is similar to Beauden in that he likes to attack the advantage line, enjoys the physical contest, and has good game management.

The one thing he doesn’t have is Beauden’s speed, but Johnny won’t be intimidated by the prospect of playing against the All Blacks, and that will help the Lions’ psyche.”

So, here lies the challenge for Sexton – to fully convince the Lions around them that he is the man to lead them into that first Test and cause an upset at the fortress that is Eden Park.

That job has already begun on the training ground and with last weekend’s performance against the Crusaders, but Saturday’s clash with the Māori is essential to the process. Sexton must be dominant, accurate, communicative and efficient in everything he does.

Of course, Sexton already has a Lions Test series success under his belt as the frontline out-half, albeit against what was in hindsight a relatively poor Wallabies squad.

For the players from that 2013 tour who have linked up with Sexton again this year, not much has changed.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton bench presses during a Lions gym session. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think he’s very similar,” says centre Jonathan Davies, who played with Sexton in all three Tests in Australia.

“He demands very high standards in training and he expects everyone to know their role and he puts pressure on the backline. I think it’s great for the team.

“For us to improve, we need to have pressure on us and be able to perform under that pressure because whoever plays in the Test matches is going to be under a lot of it. The way he trains, it’s great for us as a group.”

Gatland can see Sexton applying that pressure more than anyone, and it will provide solace for him as he worries over Farrell’s badly-timed quad issue.

Farrell and Sexton are similar characters, with both placing great demands on the group and generally dominating proceedings tactically.

That comes with the territory as an out-half and Sexton needs to impose himself confidently this weekend.

“The way Johnny runs things is very vocal,” says Ben Te’o, who played with Sexton at Leinster. “He likes to run it all and the main thing you have to do is react quick to what he wants.

“When he gives you the chat about what he wants, you just do it quick. He runs the show.”

With Farrell in doubt, it’s time for Sexton to make this his Lions show.

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Murray Kinsella

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