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!”
Perception is everything, and had Sexton been taking the goal-kicks with his own customary accuracy of the last couple of years the huge travelling media corps would have been waxing lyrical about the undisputed king of European outhalves. It’s hardly a state secret that Sexton, a hugely driven and demanding young man, not least of himself, would have been particularly grumpy about not being the designated place-kicker.
Halfpenny’s success rate
But it’s hard to dispute the case given Leigh Halfpenny’s success rate of 25 from 27 to date, and even Sexton has come to terms with this. “It is different. I work all year with this in the back of my mind and then it just hasn’t happened. Any minute I have been on the pitch, Leigh has been on the pitch and his stats speak for themselves. You can’t argue with his stats. And the same with Owen as well, he has kicked really well.
“I have been happy with how I have kicked over the last three years, since the World Cup when I had a bit of a blip. I am continuing to work hard in case Leigh goes down or has a bad day. I am working as if I am kicking. Obviously I would like to. It is something I have done all my life. It is strange but I will enjoy the little bit less pressure.”
There is always the possibility, of course, that the scale of the occasion and the scale of the prize on offer could overwhelm them. It is, for sure, the biggest game of his life, and ditto for many others, but Sexton has accumulated plenty of big game experience now.
The nervous anticipation had already begun as he spoke to journalists yesterday.
“The feeling you have when you wake up the day before a big game and you feel like this, you know it’s a massive game. You only get it before the really special ones. This is one of them. This is probably the biggest. You have to control that, try and chill out and not think about it too much for the rest of the day and try and stay loose. Tomorrow will be the same, try not to think about it until four or five hours before kick-off and then let the nerves kick on.”
Sexton can be riled, but his temperament was tested by some roughhouse tactics from the Waratahs. Besides, as a 27-year-old for whom nothing has ever come particularly easy, Sexton can readily compartmentalise what is required from the actual game.
“There’s not many who have done it. It’s a chance to put yourself into the history books in many ways. A lot of people have done it at club level, have done it at Grand Slam level but none of us here have done it with the British & Irish Lions. It’ll be a pretty special dressing-room if we can do the business. We talk about little things like that early in the week to put it in the mind but it’ll very much be down to our performance on the pitch and trying to produce that.
Talking about making history is not going to win you the game. It’s about executing the moves, the game plan, being good in defence and stopping their moves.”
There remain a few caveats, not least whether the injury-afflicted tight five can present anything like the same quality and quantity of set-piece ball. Sexton is also starting a game with Ben Youngs for the first time, after an endgame together against the Reds and in the first Test.
Nor was last week’s performance anything like perfect, and just because Kurtley Beale wore moulded studs and his standing leg slipped with the last kick of the game hasn’t meant that the Lions have glossed over those imperfections.
“We’re lucky in terms of the coaches we have. They’re honest guys in terms of what they say. Had the kick gone over we’d have picked holes in our performance. Because we won the danger is you don’t go and look at the mistakes, where you can do better. That’s what they did though. We highlighted our performance, saw where some areas weren’t good enough and where we really need to step it up in areas. There was no glossing over that just because we won. It’s what you’d expect from coaches of their calibre.”
“Some of it was enforced because me and Mike got trapped at the bottom of a ruck and we had to go a couple of more phases to get on our feet to get rid of it. We spoke about it and finding a balance. We need to have the balance that if it’s on we go and if it’s not we do it in the right areas of the field. With the players they have we need to keep them in their own half.”
Hence, while it would be nice to win playing fluid, attractive rugby and scoring tries (which they’ll probably have to do at some juncture given 20-plus points is the likely minimum requirement for victory) it’s also about striking the right balance between pragmatism and ambition, with Sexton the key decision maker.
“It’s about doing what’s right for the team. That’s the most important thing when you’re an outhalf, you have to make a decision.
“Sometimes it might be on with five-on-three in your own half, but you might have to get rid of it because of the time of the game or the score. That’s part and parcel. It’s a hard position to play. It gets easier the more experienced you get but they’re never easy at the same time.”
And easy is the last word you’d use to describe this one.