Here’s Johnny: Sexton confounds his doubters again
People were saying he couldn’t survive a Lions tour. He is delighted to prove that he can
Johnny Sexton, redemption man. He shouldn’t really have to prove anything to anybody after all he’s achieved, but venturing into the finale of the ultimate challenge, he has progressed from second choice out-half to reclaim the No 10 jersey he wore through the entire series in Australia four years ago. Johnny’s back.
He had admitted from the outset that making the test team ahead of Owen Farrell was the biggest challenge of his career, a statement born of respect for his foe, roommate and now teammate. In the event, they worked in tandem last week from the off, having done so impressively when Sexton appeared off the bench for the last 52 minutes against the Crusaders.
That was Sexton’s third game in seven days and seemed to be a turning point. A week later he was back to something like his best in directing the game in the handsome win over the Maori. Although he was confined to the bench in the first test, he and Farrell teamed up again for the last quarter before finally starting together for the first time last Saturday. Their partnership started brightly, and finished even better, their roles as dual playmakers central in the creation of both Lions tries. Sexton stayed cool and orchestrated the comeback, reviving his wraparound with Farrell, then teaming up to create the space out wide for Toby Faletau’s try, before they duped the All Blacks into thinking Sexton would again go out the back to Farrell but instead picked out Jamie George’s brilliant line for Conor Murray’s try.
In this third test, Sexton will play his sixth Lions test in a row, five of them as the starting out-half. Yep, he has confounded the doubters again.
“You don’t go searching for opinion but it’s hard to ignore at times. Obviously people were saying that I couldn’t survive a Lions tour, that I wouldn’t be able for it. So it’s nice to prove to yourself that you can.
“I played three games in a week and to be able to back that up by starting the Maori game the week after, it’s always nice to do things like that when people don’t expect you to be able to.”
Three games in a week? “I probably did it in Paris a few times,” he admitted wryly of his time with Racing 92, and particularly his early days there, when sprung into a Pro12 season after the Lions tour of four years ago.
Concern for his wellbeing
Over the past four years especially, Sexton has attracted more than his fair share of publicity and comment concerning his wellbeing, both with regard to his form and, in particular, physically.
Not that he’s motivated by any of this.
“No, I don’t seek it out. I try the opposite, but often, whether it’s your mum or someone else just texting you, venting about what this person has said about you. Your brother might say it to you and you’re ‘Please, don’t say that again, don’t tell me.’ You try to stay away from it, but it’s very hard in today’s world with the amount of social media and just media and how popular the game is. It’s very hard to stay away from everything. You do see some stuff.”
Sexton’s progress on this tour reflects the squad in general, and is no different from several other players.
“As a 10, it’s probably the hardest position to come into a new system or team. Even if I’m comfortable in the system, it’s the other guys around you that need to be comfortable as well, so you’re not going to see the best of the out-half until you’ve had time together and other guys are comfortable with the calls.”
“In the first game, the second game, third game, you’re calling things and guys are having to think about it. When you have to think about it, that’s when you start losing collisions and start making mistakes you wouldn’t normally, because there’s that confusion or people are having to second-guess themselves. It’s that lack of preparation time, but you back yourself, having been in that situation before. You can realise that yourself, despite what everyone else might be saying.”
Anton Lienert-Brown has said that the All Blacks might try to “expose” the Sexton-Farrell 10-12 channel, and Sexton admits the duo can be better defensively, adding: “At times we dealt with it pretty well, other times we let them get too far over the gain line and made it tough for our forwards to fold around the corner.”
“It’s something we’ve spoken about doing better this week. They’ve picked Laumape at 12 again and brought in Savea, who they’ll use off their wing a lot. We’ve got to be ready for the different types of moves they throw at us.”
Nor is putting his body on the line something that Sexton can be faulted for.
“Well, we’ll go hard down the opposition 10’s channel, because if you make hay there, it makes the next phase easier if you can make the 10 make tackles and tire him out. Then he’s going to be more tired come the end of the game.”
“I’ve made quite a lot of tackles on this tour, so it’s something that they definitely go after. In most of the games I’ve played, I’ve hit double figures for tackles, so it’s something you’re used to. Obviously, it’s a set-up with Laumape as he’s a strong, powerful guy, and Savea being brought in as well. [Beauden] Barrett can be pretty direct at 10 as well; at times he likes to take it really flat, break the five metres, which the refs said they’re going to ref that,” he adds in reference to Barrett taking scrum ball flat.
Talking to refs
Sexton’s arm-waving and dialogue with referees does not endear him to officials, and prior to last week’s second test, in admitting that everything should come through Sam Warburton, the out-half conceded: “It’s part of my game or personality that I need to work on. I’ve been working on it for the last 10 years, so it’s been going really well.”
Amid the gruesome hit by Sonny Bill Williams, this self-deprecating line looked even funnier when you reviewed Sexton running in from his out-half station to highlight the incident, with Murray and Faletau also raising their arms.
“I’ve got to stay away from them at the moment,” he repeats. “I was good in the last game up until that one incident, which was heat of the moment. It’s amazing – you can write down your goals before the game, ‘No talking to the refs,’ and 20 minutes in . . . I was right beside it when it happened and I didn’t want to let it go.”
In other words, at times he still can’t help himself.