Gerry Thornley: Sexton is still the best - but will he wear 10 for the Lions?

Lions tours are logistically demanding at the best of times, nevermind during a pandemic

Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell will be among the contenders for the Lions 10 jersey in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell will be among the contenders for the Lions 10 jersey in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

A common perception is that the British & Irish Lions are as much about money as they are about rugby. For sure, they are a relatively self-financing model and Lions tours are expensive to put together, so if they generate €1 million for each of the four home unions then that is considered a monetary success. They are much bigger earners for the host countries.

Taking a party of around 85 or more people, including the original 41-man squad plus late call-ups, to New Zealand four years ago would have cost at least €2 or €3 million in hotels, training facilities et al, not to mention paying players, coaches and back-up staff, be it directly or through their various unions or clubs, as well as compensation to the clubs.

That requires plenty of sponsorship and commercial partners, with the latter’s representatives in turn swelling those aforementioned staff numbers more than would be the case for a tour to the southern hemisphere by an individual country. On those tours there might only be one person representing the commercial wing of a union.

Hence also, the distinctly corporate feel to a Lions tour, but this year’s tour is different and to describe it as solely motivated by money is actually a misconception.

It’s understood that the South African rugby union are co-hosting the tour, thereby reducing hotel costs, and touring South Africa is cheaper than touring New Zealand or Australia, or bringing the Springboks to the UK, which the Lions board had strongly considered.

Even so, the Lions will do well to break even this year, certainly if the eight games are played behind closed doors. Pressing ahead with this Lions tour is as much as anything about keeping the show on the road as anything else.

Daunting

At the best of times a Lions tour is one of the most logistically problematic and daunting challenges imaginable, and usually with little or no preparation time, and obstacles aplenty, often placed there by the English clubs in the guise of Premiership Rugby.

This time Gatland and his assistant coaches will have no players from the Premiership semi-finalists for the first week of the 10-day preparatory camp in Jersey

True to type, the English clubs declined to bring forward the Premiership final from Saturday, June 26th, which is the same day as the Lions’ warm-up game against Japan in Murrayfield, ie a day before the squad flies out to Johannesburg and a week before their opening game in South Africa.

Talk about history repeating itself, although four years ago, Warren Gatland was slightly fortunate that Exeter, with just Tomas Francis and Jack Nowell in the Lions squad, edged out Saracens in the Premiership semi-finals, meaning that Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Owen Farrell were all free to link up with the Lions a week earlier than if they’d reached the final.

This time Gatland and his assistant coaches will have no players from the Premiership semi-finalists for the first week of the 10-day preparatory camp in Jersey, and none of the finalists until the morning of departure.

The Lions huddle before a game against the Maori All Blacks in 2017. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The Lions huddle before a game against the Maori All Blacks in 2017. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

However, Premiership Rugby and the Lions are still at loggerheads over the release of English-based players even from clubs who do not reach the play-offs, in other words whose season is already completed.

Most likely, in addition to being peeved that the Lions have arranged a game against Japan on the same day as their final, this is a money-inspired stand-off. The Lions compensated the clubs to the tune of about €75,000 per player for the tour to New Zealand four years ago but for reasons already outlined, they won’t be in a position to do so this time.

By contrast, the Pro14 organisers have agreed to the Rainbow Cup final being held a week earlier, on June 19th, a week before the Japan game and a fortnight before the opening Lions’ match in South Africa.

Gatland has thus suggested that in a close selection call between a player who might not be available for any of the preparatory camp in Jersey or someone who would be, he and his assistant coaches could be tempted to lean toward the latter.

Of the quintet picked in 2017, only Furlong and Henshaw look certainties this time around

For this he has been accused of being “disingenuous” yet if you put yourself in Gatland’s position then there is a clear rationale behind selecting a player who will be able to fully participate in the 10-day camp in Jersey as against one who wouldn’t be available until the morning of departure.

By Gatland’s estimate, if the Premiership clubs don’t budge, around 16 to 20 players could fall into the latter category. What’s more, if Gatland waited until the announcement of the squad to highlight this, he’d assuredly have been criticised for not raising the matter sooner.

Squad announcement

While the likelihood of being released may enhance the prospects of one or two Irish, Welsh or Scottish-based players, the latter two are further boosted by having several of the Lions coaching ticket batting for them prior to the squad being announced on May 6th.

Not so the Irish players, given there is no Andy Farrell on the ticket this time. However Leinster, who provided five players four years ago – Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, at least have Robin McBryde.

Tadhg Furlong is one of the few Irish certaintites to make the Lions squad. Photograph: Nigel Marple/Reuters
Tadhg Furlong is one of the few Irish certaintites to make the Lions squad. Photograph: Nigel Marple/Reuters

Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan and others have emerged as candidates four years on and on the final weekend before the Lions squad is selected they are the only non-French side left standing in the Champions Cup.

A strong reminder that they are fit and well, even by Doris, and who knows?

Of the quintet picked in 2017, only Furlong and Henshaw look certainties this time around and events appear to be conspiring against one of the most influential figures in both the 2013 series win and the drawn series in New Zealand, namely Sexton.

Owen Farrell is sure to be named, and with Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy aboard from the Scottish ticket, it’s hard to believe that Finn Russell won’t be, while Dan Biggar will have his advocates, not least in Gatland and Neil Jenkins.

Furthermore, no sooner had Sexton guided Ireland to three successive wins in the Six Nations, playing 80 minutes in all of them, than he suffered another head injury against Exeter, and Leinster even went on to win without him.

Sexton is still the best and is a proven Lions Test match winner. He reminded us of that only a few weeks ago against England. But will enough of the Lions coaches see it that way?

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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