Jonathan Sexton ready to open the door to number ten
Irish outhalf delighted to make debut and already looks better choice than Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell applauds after the Barbarians hooker, Schalk Brits, was shown a yellow card in Hong Kong. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Jonny Sexton is a British and Irish Lion; Lion number 791. He may well prove to be the most important Lion on this tour but in any event Sexton’s richly earned, new-found status was worth reflecting upon and celebrating.
Intensely driven as he is, earlier this season the prospect of a Lions’ tour had become so distracting that this self-confessed sports anorak had to restrict his intake of rugby information. For all his undoubted talent, nothing has ever come particularly easy for Sexton, but after this landmark he beamed like a kid in the cooler underground of So Kon Po Stadium.
“I sort of ran around like a headless chicken for 20 minutes, tired myself out. It was obviously very special. Strange circumstances, to come on when the game was over like that. Warren (Gatland) said before the game that it’s special to get your first cap, obviously it’s a little bit more special to start, but he said the guys on the bench had a responsibility to make the starters have a special night. We’ll get a chance to start maybe on Wednesday and that will be a very special first start for everyone.”
Coming on with Conor Murray was helpful, he admitted, but reflecting on two weeks of winning medals with Leinster while sipping rather than living with the Lions had made for “a whirlwind couple of weeks. We came in and didn’t really train until Wednesday, so we had Wednesday, Thursday, Friday on the pitch in the heat. It’s been a difficult build-up but the main objective tonight was to get a good blowout and playing in those conditions will stand to us. And to get that first Lions cap is special.”
As the only two outhalves Sexton and Owen Farrell have already begun developing a working relationship and friendship to balance with their competitive streaks. “We’ve built up a good relationship already. We have trained a lot together, and kicked a lot together after training, so we’ve already spent a lot of time together.”
“I’ve always said it’s not really ‘ten against ten’. He’ll go out and try his best and he’ll rely on the team, and they’ll rely on him and it’ll be the same for me, and whoever plays better over the next few weeks will get the nod for the Test . . .”
Nonetheless, Sexton plays flatter than Farrell and has better hands – witness the swift transfer for Alun Wyn Jones’ try. He is quicker, has a better supporting and running game, and is as good a defender. Given Jamie Roberts, for all his hard running and physicality, is the only specialist inside centre, there would be a deficiency in creativity if Sexton wasn’t here.
The one slight blemish to Sexton’s 23 minute cameo was three of five missed conversions, as team-mates kept scoring in the right hand corner, but he hadn’t missed one in practice the day before or in the warm-up – attributing the misses to a high heart-rate coming off the bench – and had no concerns that he wouldn’t rectify the glitch.
Although Farrell kicked well generally off the ‘tee’ and out of hand, arguably the biggest concern arising out of Saturday’s slightly facile was his continuing patchy form after a strong first half to the season.
At times he was too deep, despite which he had two kicks charged down, and while reacting to Schalk Brits’ punch was understandable, holding on to Brits’ shirt after one of those charge downs, and then applauding the yellow card issued to his Saracens’ team-mate provided further evidence of his suspect temperament.
It’s hard to equate with the well-rounded and polite lad off the pitch who, of course, also became a Lion on Saturday night. “You look at it and think who’s gone before? Yeah the embroidery on it, the date, how many people have played for the Lions before. You get given a number; I was 780th player to play for the Lions. You make sure you take that in.”
In the heat of battle though, Farrell becomes too feisty for his or any outhalf’s own good. Nor does it appear to help his game; indeed all available evidence suggests the contrary. Yet typical of his nature, he said of the altercation with Brits, who was cited and banned for three weeks: “When someone reacts to you, you try not to take a backward step not just in this occasion but in every occasion. I just grabbed him. Nothing nasty in it.”
Farrell nevertheless conceded it was “a reminder of how vital it is to keep cool” and though Gatland appeared understanding of Farrell’s reaction, he re-iterated the need to “take one for the team”. Privately Gatland will assuredly have had a word, as will his assistant coach Andy Farrell, the player’s dad. After all, the Australians will have been watching.