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Warburton: Injury struggles could hurt Sexton's Lions chances

The two-time Lions captain thinks a spot in the starting team may be too big an ask for the out-half.

Ireland and Leinster captain Johnny Sexton.
Ireland and Leinster captain Johnny Sexton.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

HAVING CAPTAINED THE British and Irish Lions in 2013 and 2017, Sam Warburton knows a thing or two about what makes a good tourist.

And like many ex-pros, he’s spent a lot of time recently putting together his potential Lions starting XV for this summer’s tour to South Africa.

At the moment he feels there are six players who are ‘bankers’ for the first Test against the Springboks. They are, in his mind, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Tom Curry, Toby Faletau, Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg. 

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton was also on that list a few short weeks ago, but Warburton now feels that even if the out-half is fit and firing by the time the Lions land in South Africa, his recent injury issues may work against him when Warren Gatland sits down to pick his team.

Sexton is currently undergoing ‘further assessment’ following an unfortunate run of head injuries this year, being removed from the pitch in games against Wales, Munster and Exeter.

“My (Lions) team has gone back and forth, I’ve said openly I could never be a Lions coach because it’s so hard to pick a team. I’ve changed my mind a few times already,” Warburton says.

I had him in my team not long ago as my 10, because I love his competitiveness, incredibly high standards, his leadership, his experience, his game management. He’s good defensively, obviously a great kicker. So with all those things, you think this guy has got to be a dead cert.

“But he went off the pitch recently for Leinster, and I was with another well-respected ex-Lion and I remember he said, ‘That’s why I worry he might not be able to start a Test match.’ Because that’s been happening a little bit more often in recent years, and you don’t want your 10 – who is effectively your quarterback – going off after 10 minutes, having to reshuffle and use your bench early and show some cards early that you weren’t going to use until the last 20-30 minutes.

“So that is probably the only thing going against him. You see him with his hamstring strapped up (sometimes), and he has certain (injury) issues. 

q-a005322a70_bil_test_jersey_sam_pr_landscape_01_150_rgb Sam Warburton helped launch the new British and Irish Lions jersey. Source: PCA

“I think he’ll go on tour, because he would be invaluable to have, but they will have to judge what he’s like out there. Hopefully his body can withstand it, but if he’s picking up niggles out there, it’s going to be very difficult for him to be a Test starter.”

Out-half is one of the most hotly-debated positions when it comes to picking a Lions team, with Sexton, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Dan Biggar the leading candidates.

“If any of them started, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I genuinely wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” Warburton continues.

“People have shown me their teams over the past two weeks, and whoever has been at 10 I’ve thought, ‘Yeah, can’t argue.’

I’m trying to take off my Welsh hat, but right now I’m thinking… he’s got three Six Nations titles to his name, World Cup quarter-final, World Cup semi-final, a Lions tour under his belt already, he’s won a Pro14 title, a brilliant goalkicker – I think last year he was statistically the best kicker in the world – great under a high ball, great defensively, great leader, great competition – Dan Biggar. 

“Even on the 2017 tour, you had two iconic players in their pomp in Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, but Dan Biggar played amazing (in the midweek games) on that 2017 tour. He was just unfortunate he had two icons ahead of him. I wonder whether this is his year. 

“But I think it would be foolish now to pick who your Test 10 is going to be. I think that will unfold in the first three or four games on tour. Right now for the coaches, it’s probably the one position they haven’t inked in. It’s the one position you probably do want to ink in, but they haven’t. I think that will unfold early on tour.”

Warburton thinks the selection process could also be cruel to some of Ireland’s other in-form players. The 32-year-old believes Warren Gatland may view Tadhg Beirne as “too light” for the second row, but has a better chance of squeezing into the back row.

He also singles out Leinster’s Josh van der Flier as a player who has caught the eye.

“I think Josh van der Flier has been phenomenal, he’s been brilliant. Technically he’s a brilliant 7, he does exactly what a 7 needs to do. So I think you’ve got, and this is where it gets so tricky, (Hamish) Watson, (Tom) Curry, van der Flier, Tipuric and (Josh) Navidi have got to fit into three and I don’t know how they’re going to do that. 

josh-van-der-flier Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think (Hamish) Watson and Curry will go. I think Sam Simmonds will go. There’s going to be some big, big omissions. All these brilliant back rows, they’re not all going to go.

“Beirne and Van der Flier have impressed. I’d take Beirne at 6, but I think Gats would be more inclined to pick somebody a bit heavier, because I know he really values that weight in the second row, when we used to play against second rows who were a bit on the light side, he would flag it and say that’s somewhere we can target. 

“So I’m not sure, but I’ll think he’ll be picked as a second row/back row and could cover both.

“He’ll definitely get game time if he goes as a second row, but he’s probably not one of his frontline Test starters there, that’s why I think the back row might come more into play.

“I think players like himself, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, if he goes, could find themselves at 6 and that’s what makes them almost pretty safe picks to go because you need players who can jump into the back row as well and they could do that.

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johnny-williams-and-adam-beard-with-tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne in action against Wales earlier this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Tadhg Beirne, for me, is nailed on to go on the tour, and has a great shout to be a Test starter, and I think 6 could suit him as well.”

Warburton, who was speaking as Canterbury launched the new Lions jersey for this summer’s tour, also believes James Ryan will find himself in a straight shoot-out with Alun Wyn Jones to partner England’s Maro Itoje in the second row, with Warburton backing the Saracens lock to captain the side.

“Obviously with James Ryan, they’re going to have to take a little bit of a punt on him because he hasn’t had as much game time as he’d like.

“He probably hasn’t hit the heights of 2018/19, but I think players will play themselves in….of the 36 that go on tour, they probably have a preconceived idea that maybe 20 or 23 could start a Test, and Alun Wyn is one of those guys, along with James Ryan and Maro, so that will unfold in the first few games on tour.

“The reason why I’m predicting Maro as captain is because I think he’s a dead cert, I think it’s between James Ryan and Alun Wyn to battle it out for that 5 shirt.” 

Sam Warburton was speaking as Canterbury launched the British & Irish Lions Test jersey, available from www.canterbury.com

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Ciarán Kennedy

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