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It's easy to see the sense in Gatland's side of the Sexton debate

The Ireland captain has paid the price for a frustrating run of injuries.

Johnny Sexton and Warren Gatland in 2017.
Johnny Sexton and Warren Gatland in 2017.
Image: David Davies

WARREN GATLAND HAD the look of a man who knew what was coming as he took his seat on the other side of the computer screen. The Lions head coach has held court in enough of these press conferences to know that those who didn’t make the cut tend to generate as much interest as those who did receive his seal of approval. 

He described his 37-man selection for this year’s British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa as “the hardest and most difficult squad” he has ever had to pick. You felt he was being genuine.

When the tedious and sometimes bizarre build-up – complete with an appearance from Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones via hologram – finally concluded, the surprises came thick and fast.

The squad had been bumped up from 36 to 37 players. We hope Bundee Aki wasn’t holding anything hot when his name flashed up as the second confirmed tourist. Jack Conan also made the grade to cap what’s been a remarkable turnaround following his long-term injury. Andrew Porter was deservedly rewarded for his own stellar form.

Then we started to realise the names that hadn’t appeared on screen. Johnny Sexton was the most obvious, and perhaps expected. There was no James Ryan. Cian Healy, Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander were also nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t an uniquely Irish complaint. There was no room for England’s Manu Tuilagi, Billy Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler or Henry Slade. Welsh rugby fans scratched their heads at the omission of Josh Navidi. The Scots, for once, were actually left pleasantly surprised.

In the end Ireland had eight representatives in the squad – four Leinster men, two from Munster and one each from Connacht and Ulster.

jack-conan-makes-a-break Jack Conan was rewarded for his strong form this year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Plenty to be excited about from an Irish perspective, but first Gatland was asked to give some detail on those notable absentees. 

None were more notable than Ireland and Leinster captain, Johnny Sexton, who is currently out of action as he recovers from a succession of head injuries suffered this year.

Shortly before Gatland spoke, his kicking coach Neil Jenkins admitted they held concerns about the out-half’s durability against a side as physical as the Springboks.

Gatland elaborated.

“We understand about Johnny Sexton and how disappointed he may be, what a great player he is. But when it came down to it and the physicality, it wasn’t anything about concussion, I can promise you that,” Gatland said.

“It was just looking at the durability and how tough South Africa is going to be from that point of view, and me sending the right message to the 10s who are selected.

“Look, I thought he (Sexton) was outstanding against Scotland and great against England,” he added.

“There’s no doubt he’s a quality player and at the end of the day it wasn’t about concussion for me. We made a tough call about durability. We went back and he played the Six Nations, and the thing with the Six Nations is that you do have a couple of games and then you get a week off because it is really, really tough.

To give you a good example… I know he’s rested on a number of occasions for Leinster or for Ireland but the last time that Johnny played three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018, and he has had some knocks, we know that, but he’s had a number of different injuries.

“So when it came down to it, we’ve got such a choice of three, four, five quality 10s to pick from and I just wanted to send a message to the guys we have selected that we have complete confidence and faith in you to do a job, and that mitigated against the risk that if we did pick Johnny he doesn’t play games or doesn’t get through the tour and then having to call someone up.

“To me it’s just such an important position, I just wanted to get that right and get the message right.”

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, who will serve as attack coach in South Africa, sang from the same hymn sheet.

“We just feel with the injuries Johnny has picked up and what is in front of all of us, all the players out in South Africa, the physical nature, the demands that will be placed on players, not just up against opposition who are very physical but the games that you have to be available for, this last injury has probably counted against him.”

Sexton will be massively disappointed to miss out on one last Lions tour, but it is easy to see the sense in Gatland’s side of the argument, even if Finn Russell’s form is perhaps less predictable than Sexton’s ability to see out a game. 

The thinking was equally clear cut when it came to James Ryan. With Maro Itoje and captain Alun Wyn Jones primed to start in the second row, the out-of-form Ryan was always facing an uphill battle, with his more versatile Ireland teammates, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne benefitting from their strong form and versatility.

iain-henderson-comes-up-against-maro-itoje Ulster's Iain Henderson was one of Ireland's strongest performers in the Six Nations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A major result too, for Connacht’s Aki, whose last act on a rugby pitch was that red card against England on the final day of the Six Nations. He would have surely doubted his Lions credentials based on the lengthy ban which ensued, but in Gatland he has a major fan.

Aki possesses the obvious physical strengths that Gatland feels will be necessary to topple the Springboks, and it’s certainly no harm that he tends to get the best out of his close friend Robbie Henshaw, arguably the form centre in European rugby.

The pair first played together at Connacht back in 2014. They shared a pitch as Ireland teammates for the first time in 2017 and could now reignite their partnership this summer in the famous red Lions jersey.

“I thought the midfield combination of Aki and Henshaw against England was absolutely outstanding, and we tried to get that balance right (with the centres),” explained Gatland, who also namechecked Garry Ringrose as a strong option should injuries strike.

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robbie-henshaw-and-bundee-aki-celebrate-after-the-game Ireland centres Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I mean, Bundee is almost a replacement… (can) do the same role as someone like Manu, he brings that go forward and physicality, he has a fantastic mix in his game. 

“They’re going to have a big, physical midfield and are going to be very direct. We’re going to have to have players who can mirror that if we need to, but also go out there and play some rugby, centres who can distribute but also a back three that are able to score tries.”

The former Wales head coach also singled out Munster’s Beirne for his “outstanding” ability to win turnovers and his excellent Six Nations form.

Overall, Gatland’s selection has a powerful look to it and is very much a squad picked with the opposition in mind.

“I think if you were going to Australia or New Zealand then the make-up of the squad and certain players may look a little bit different,” Gatland continued.

We have tried to get that balance right, saying when we can go there we are going to have to roll our sleeves up on a few occasions and go toe to toe with the South Africans. We feel like we have picked players who if we are in that situation, can do that sort of job for us, but we also have to be mindful that we want to go out there and play some good rugby and put them under pressure.

“We want to be positive in the way that we play and we definitely went with that attitude in New Zealand on the last tour.

“Going back to 2009 (tour to South Africa) and some of the experiences from that, we probably went into that first Test with a false sense of where we were. We had not come across South Africa Test players. That’s going to happen on this tour as well. We are not going to be exposed to them and they are not going to be exposed to us.

“We just have to make sure that we learn from 2009 and although they have not played any rugby since the World Cup, the way they played in the World Cup, the set piece and how strong that is, their kicking game, how often they kick, their physicality, the way that they defend… I think in the last number of years we had a pretty good formula for Wales in terms of the success that we have had against South Africa. A lot of them were tight contests, including the semi-final of the World Cup.

“It’s not Wales, it is the British & Irish Lions. We have got an even a greater range and quality of players to choose from. That’s really exciting.”


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Garry Doyle and Gavan Casey discuss Gatland’s Lions selection and the bigger picture for Ulster and Leinster following European defeats.

 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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