Johnny Sexton holds no grudge against Warren Gatland after painful Lions snub

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton insists he does not hold a grudge against Wales head coach Warren Gatland regarding his painful British and Irish Lions snub.

Fly-half Sexton was devastated to be overlooked for the 2021 tour of South Africa and will come up against Lions boss Gatland for the first time since in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations opener in Cardiff.

He has impressively responded to that major disappointment – leading his country to a Triple Crown, an historic series success in New Zealand and the top of the world rankings during the past 12 months.

Johnny Sexton is fit for Ireland's Guinness Six Nations opener following cheekbone surgery
Johnny Sexton is fit for Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations opener following cheekbone surgery (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The 37-year-old, who on Wednesday trained without a face mask for the first time since undergoing cheekbone surgery last month, met Gatland at last week’s Six Nations launch event in London and says there is no lingering hostility.

“It’s something that you never get back which is why it hurts so badly at the time,” the two-time Lions tourist told a press conference at Ireland’s training camp in Portugal.

“But people make their decisions and, at the time, they probably make them for what they think are the right reasons.

“I met him at the launch and there was no animosity or anything. I shook hands and said hello.

“I got on really well with him on the two previous tours, which is probably why it hurt so much. But it is what it is. It’s over now, it was a long time ago.”

Gatland opted to pick Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and Owen Farrell as his number 10 options against the Springboks, before calling up Marcus Smith as cover.

The New Zealander, who returned for a second stint in charge of Wales in December, admitted this week that Sexton had “probably” proved him wrong with his subsequent fine form.

He also claimed this weekend’s Principality Stadium clash is a “free hit” for the hosts due to Ireland being overwhelming favourites, an assessment which was dismissed outright by Sexton.

“Maybe that’s what he’s saying but he certainly hasn’t picked a team that would suggest it’s a free hit because he’s picked such an experienced team,” said Sexton, who is fit and available to start following his recent facial injury.

“He has brought back some older guys that would suggest he’s targeting this game.

“If he was looking at a free hit, he’d pick all the young lads, give it a lash and see if they can get through to the World Cup.

“We’re definitely not preparing like that. We’re preparing for a full-on Test match in the Principality Stadium which is an incredibly tough place to go and win. That’s all we’ve been talking about and preparing for.”