He may not taking the kicks but Jonny Sexton has put his best foot forward
The outhalf has adapted to a new game and Lions team-mates with aplomb
Jonny Sexton during kicking practice, at the Etihad Stadium, Melbourne before the second Test. Phograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Jonny Sexton was almost certainly the Lions’ most important player when the squad was announced and – no disrespect to Owen Farrell – nothing has changed in the interim. The presence of a mature, developed outhalf in red over a gifted, if comparably unproven, number 10 in gold is arguably the biggest reason for believing the Lions can achieve their holy grail today.
Sexton has shown an uncanny ability to find space with his kicking game. He has attacked the gain line. His running and the timing and variety of his passing have been on the money. He has a capacity for passing and supporting and staying on the move, unlike most other outhalves.
While it may have been a contributory factor in the defeat to the Brumbies, the policy of bringing out just two outhalves from what was a fairly bare cupboard in any case has worked so far.
Farrell is also, lest we forget, only 22 and has improved discernibly and played flatter on tour.
In any event Stephen Larkham, as classy a running outhalf as there’s been in the professional age, has been suitably taken by Sexton. “I’ve been really impressed with Jonny Sexton. I didn’t know too much about him before he came out here. I watched some highlights packages of him. But he controls the game exceptionally well and is dangerous in attack. He’s also stepped up defensively. His game last week was key to their victory. Owen Farrell is a very good defensive player but emotionally and mentally he is a bit inconsistent. He needs to work on that but he will gain experience out of this tour which will bode well for England when he gets back into that national side.”
There’s also, of course, Sexton’s unflinching defence, and as the Lions’ chief playmaker, he has also had to adapt to a new game and new team-mates to run the show. “Jonny has been very composed,” said Rob Howley yesterday. “He’s been a navigator, and he has worked very well with all the halfbacks. Him and Owen Farrell have got on. They have shared ideas. Jonny has been very open-minded in terms of the way we would like to play.”
The Lions’ backs coach added: “As coaches you have to be open-minded and learn off players as well and I think that Jonny’s game is in a really good place. I thought his kicking game last week was outstanding in terms of whether he went long or went to the air and I think he can offer something different in terms of being a running threat as well. I think we want both our number tens to be flat and attacking the gain line and Jonny has demonstrated that for both Ireland and Leinster over the last couple of years.
“Sometimes you forget with Jonny how old he is and how experienced he is. He has been around for a long time and there is no doubt he has learned off the likes of Ronan O’Gara as well, who he has been understudy to. You take all that learning and experience you have with Ireland and with Leinster, he’s fulfilled his potential and they are on the cusp of hopefully achieving what they haven’t achieved. I don’t want to talk about that word!”