Johnny Sexton stakes Lions claim after dealing with England bruisers

Tom Cary
Sexton was the subject of some rough treatment from England's players - 2017 Getty Images

Enduring images from a rain-soaked evening in Dublin: Iain Henderson stretching to score; Peter O’Mahony rising to steal an England lineout with minutes remaining; Ireland captain Rory Best imploring referee Jerome Garces to do more to protect his star man Johnny Sexton.

If the post-mortem to this Six Nations inevitably focuses on Lions selection and who may or may not feature in Warren Gatland’s plans for Eden Park in that first Test on June 24, few places will come under as much scrutiny as that vital 10 shirt; the playmaker.

Sexton’s role in derailing England’s chariot on Saturday - despite the painfully close attentions of an assortment of England bruisers - was a timely reminder of what the 31 year-old can offer under the most intense pressure.

Maro Itoje collared Sexton a couple of times. James Haskell and Tom Wood also got in on the late late show. It got to the stage where Best was heard to complain to Garces: “Our 10 is constantly getting hit late.” He had a point.

“[Garces] kept saying the TMO [Ben Skeen from New Zealand] was keeping an eye on it,” Best said afterwards.

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“He was saying his job and the job of his assistants and TMO was to look after the players. All I was saying was it was my job as captain was to make sure our players were looked after. I had to put on a bit of pressure to make sure they were or I would be getting it from Joe [Schmidt].”

Sexton stayed down a couple of times – and his injury record is a concern – but the fact he stayed on the pitch for the full 80 minutes on Saturday was note-worthy.

Ireland lost this championship while Sexton was off the pitch. He was injured for their defeat by Scotland, and undergoing HIA and then sin-binned while Wales racked up the bulk of their points at the Millennium Stadium.

How England targeted Sexton

When Sexton was on the pitch, Ireland generally prospered. He inspired them to victory over France on his return from a month out injured. He threatened Wales in attack and defence when he was actually on the pitch. On Saturday, Sexton directed a first half symphony that secured Ireland 74 per cent of the ball.

“Sexton makes them tick in attack,” conceded Joe Launchbury of England’s tactics. “It doesn’t take a rugby genius to work out how involved he is in their attack, how many times he gets his hands on the ball and we wanted to disrupt that rhythm.”

Gatland has a number of options at his disposal at out-half. George Ford and Owen Farrell have shown how effective they can be as a 10-12 partnership when they are given any space at all. The Lions, though, are likely to be on the back foot in New Zealand and Ford is not nearly so effective on the back foot. Alternatively, Farrell could move to 10 with Robbie Henshaw outside him.

Maro Itoje grapples with Sexton Credit: PA

Or Gatland could trust in a partnership that has experience of beating New Zealand in the last six months; that already has experience of playing together for the Lions. Conor Murray, injured on Saturday but still ahead of Rhys Webb in the Lions pecking order, was freakishly good at Soldier Field. When both are he and Sexton are fit and on form, they represent a formidable partnership at half back.

It would mean dropping either Farrell or Henshaw to the bench, but depending on whether Gatland wants a second playmaker or a tackling machine, that is a nice dilemma to have.

Whatever he decides, Sexton is sure to feature in the Kiwi’s thinking. Sexton remains the best 10 in the northern hemisphere in terms of giving his team direction under pressure.

“He’s a competitor,” Best said. “The best thing you can say is that I definitely prefer playing with him in the green of Ireland than against him when he’s at Leinster. He’s a nightmare to play against.”

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