The telling statistic that counted against Sexton in his Lions out-half selection battle with Russell
Bringing four out-halves to South Africa was never an option for Lions boss Warren Gatland and he justified his decision to omit Johnny Sexton – a starter in five of the famed tourists’ last six Test matches – by producing a debate-ending statistic ahead of the trip to South Africa that is set to be bruising.
Despite starting all three games in the 2013 Test series versus Australia and another two Lions Test matches four years later versus the All Blacks, Sexton was the odd man out when Gatland unveiled the No10s he is taking to face the Springboks in July.
The veteran Ireland skipper is set to turn 36 in July while the Lions are touring but his age wasn’t the deciding factor in the debate as to which three of Sexton, Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell should be on the plane to South Africa.
Sexton’s issues with concussion in recent weeks also weren’t a factor, insisted the Lions coach. Instead, the decision came down to durability and what seemingly did for the Leinster player was Gatland’s revelation that he hadn’t started matches on three consecutive weekends since 2018.
A look through Sexton’s appearance record revealed that this happened in September of that year, the out-half wearing the No10 Leinster jersey on three occasions in the space of 14 days against Dragons, Edinburgh and Connacht.
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That sort of run hasn’t occurred since and it was an influential factor in Gatland siding on this occasion with the credentials of Russell rather than take a risk on Sexton. “He was outstanding against Scotland and great against England,” said the Lions boss about Sexton. “There is no doubt he is a quality player and at the end of the day it wasn’t about concussion for me.
“We made a tough call about durability. The thing with the Six Nations is you have a couple of games and then you have a week off. I know that he was rested on a number of occasions for Leinster or for Ireland but the last time Johnny played (started) three consecutive weekends in a row was 2018 and he has had some knocks and a number of different injuries.
“When it came down to it we have got such a choice there, quality 10s we could pick from, and I just wanted to be able to send a message to the guys that we have selected that we have complete confidence and faith in you to do a job and it was mitigated against the risk that if we do pick Johnny and he doesn’t get through the tour, then having to call someone up. To me, it’s such an important position. I just wanted to get that right and get the message right.”
What caught Gatland’s eye and demanded that he included Russell in his squad was the Six Nations finale in Paris when Scotland defeated France away for the first time since 1999 and handed Wales the title. Russell was shown a red card in the closing stages of that match but by then he had done more than enough to make a favourable impression on the New Zealander.
“We have got differences with our 10s and I thought that was important. I thought Finn, the best game he played in the Six Nations was against France. What impressed me was his game management, the way he controlled the game, turning France around and putting them under pressure, making them work more when the opportunities came about but also his kicking game and putting them under pressure.
“He has got so much more of a balanced game now in terms of when to run, when to turn teams around, when to kick. We understand there are some real quality 10s out there and I wanted to personally send a message, particularly to Finn that we back him and have the confidence in him to put pressure on the other 10s and put his hand up for the Test side.
“I thought it was a really important message for me to be able to deliver to someone like Finn. We understand about Johnny and how disappointed he may be. What a great player he is but when it came down to it, it was physicality. It wasn’t anything about concussion, I can promise you that.
“It was just looking at the durability and how tough South Africa is going to be from that point of view and we wanted to send the right message to the squad that we have selected that we trust you, we back you and we are going to pick you from the start because you are so important to us. It’s such a pivotal role and for him [Russell] to come up with that confidence and self-belief is important for me.”
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