Warren Gatland explains big calls on Johnny Sexton and James Ryan

The Lions head coach questions Sexton’s ‘durability’ and Ryan’s physicality

Warren Gatland has confirmed that Johnny Sexton’s “durability” was the prime factor in overlooking the two-time Lions’ outhalf and this year’s Six Nations’ leading points scorer.

The Lions head coach also cited James Ryan’s performances in Leinster’s defeat by La Rochelle last Sunday and their Champions Cup quarter-final loss at home to Saracens last September as part of the rationale behind his omission.

"There's no doubt that was one of the toughest decisions that we had to make," Gatland admitted with regard to leaving out Sexton and preferring Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Dan Biggar as his options at outhalf.

“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Johnny and his quality. But, it’s such a pivotal position for us and it’s about sending a message to the No 10s we have selected that we have confidence and belief in them to do a job.

“When we looked at where we were going, to South Africa, probably the thing that kept coming back to us was Johnny’s durability. Being able to put a string of games together, consecutively big matches together. He has been rested on a number of occasions and unfortunately that’s possibly what swayed it for us in terms of us not having the confidence that he can get through what’s going to be a tough, physical tour.”

As for not picking Ryan, Gatland said: “Look, there are a lot of tough calls. James was pretty unlucky. For us, it was getting that balance right with our secondrow and backrow options and having cover in those positions. Players being able to play secondrow or backrow.”

This factor worked in favour of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson who, like Maro Itoje, have also played at blindside.

"Look, James is unlucky," Gatland repeated. "We saw an example last weekend with Leinster against La Rochelle and if you look at the match properly, La Rochelle reminded me of what we're going to face in South Africa. We're going to face big, physical men. They'd Will Skelton, how direct they were coming off No 9.

“Probably the last couple of years, with Leinster in a couple of those big games - I know they were really good against Exeter - but we saw at the weekend and 12 months ago against Saracens in the European quarter-final - they’ve really gone hard at them physically up front and that challenge.”

It transpires that Garry Ringrose's cruel run with injuries proved particularly unfortunate when missing out on the Six Nations finale against England, not least as it showcased the abilities of Bundee Aki at '12' and Robbie Henshaw at '13' in Ireland's convincing win.

“That combination of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw was outstanding for Ireland against England, we’ve got to be able to have that balance between physicality that they bring and the ability to play rugby.

“Both of those players bring that, they know how to roll their sleeves up when it does get tough but they also can play some pretty positive attacking rugby as well.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times