'Wow': Sexton reacts to Lions tour snub and damning Gatland claim
Johnny Sexton has finally spoken about his unceremonious early July Lions snub, Warren Gatland opting to instead call up international level rookie Marcus Smith mid-tour rather than ask the veteran Ireland out-half to come to South Africa on the back of starting in five of the six Test matches on the respective 2017 and 2013 tours to New Zealand and Australia. Sexton also took issue with Gatland’s original tour party selection announcement in May where the coach claimed the 36-year-old lost out due to allegedly not being durable enough to play matches on three successive weekends.
Although Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell were the Lions’ three originally chosen out-halves for the trip to South Africa, Sexton had kept training away in Ireland with the hope that an emergency call might come from the southern hemisphere if an injury materialised.
That ailment did occur, Russell laid low in the first week of the tour in the ground in South Africa with an achilles issue that would require a number of weeks to heal. However, rather than the seasoned Lions tourist getting the call to pack his bags and fly south, Gatland instead called up the 22-year-old Smith who headed to Cape Town the day after he was told in the Twickenham tunnel during the England versus Canada match on July 10 that he was needed as cover for Russell.
Ironically, Sexton himself was in London at the time watching England defeat Pakistan at Lords in a one-day cricket international that same day that Smith got the Lions call and he believes the youngster who went on to make a single tour appearance versus the Stormers has a bright rugby future ahead of him.
“I was away at the time,” said Sexton when asked by RugbyPass where he was when the revelation about Smith’s shock selection emerged. “I was actually watching a cricket match over in England, my first ever cricket match, so I got to tick off some things when I had some free time.
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“I went to Lords and watched a cricket match, went to Wimbledon and watched a tennis match, so I was over there when the news came in. The first I heard of it was when a player texted me saying, ‘Have you heard anything?’ So then I was searching my phone and I saw a few alerts come up that he [Smith] got the call. Look, fair play to him. He finished the season incredibly well with Quins, leading them to the Premiership and playing well with England. That is the direction the coaches wanted to go and he is an exceptional young player who is going to do great things in the game over the next number of years. Fair play to him.
“We don’t know how many players got the (pre-tour selection availability) letter so when we got the letter we just stay on standby if you are not selected but you don’t know who else is on standby. That is why I tried to stay fit. I took my holidays at a later time like other guys that were on standby in Leinster.”
While Sexton was magnanimous with his comments regarding Smith jumping ahead of him in the Lions standby pecking order, he was less flattering earlier at a media briefing on Wednesday when asked for his thoughts on Gatland’s criticism about his alleged lack of durability.
Speaking on May 6 in the aftermath of his 37-strong Lions squad announcement, Gatland claimed the decision to omit Sexton was because he hadn’t started matches on three consecutive weekends since 2018. A look through Sexton’s appearance record revealed that this had last 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.
“We made a tough call about durability,” explained Gatland. “The thing with the Six Nations is you have a couple of games and then you have a week off. I know that he [Sexton] 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.”
Speaking 17 weeks after that damning Gatland claim, Sexton questioned its veracity, outlining how he was left gobsmacked by the coach who had favourably viewed him on the two previous Lions tours. “At the time I was a little bit going, ‘Wow!’ I had just played four games in the Six Nations.
“Yes, I had picked up a knock. When you are falling down in the tackle and you get a knee in the side of the head it’s nothing you can do or nothing you can control, but it was gutting to hear that (from Gatland) because I worked so hard before the Six Nations, during the Six Nations to stay fit.
“I thought I had proven by playing three 80 minutes in a row by the end, consecutive weeks, that that (durability issue) would maybe be put to bed but look, they went a certain way. I don’t know if that was just something that he said to the media, I’m not sure, but they went a different way and I just had to move on and accept it.
“At the start of course it was tough to accept it. Any player that didn’t get picked would have been feeling sorry for themselves or a bit angry about it but it’s how you react to it and I have been good at reacting to setbacks over my career and they have set me on a path to somewhere else and get success somewhere else down the line.
“I tried to use the time wisely and tried to learn from it and ultimately you have got to look at yourself as well. There is no point in pointing a finger of blame at people. You have got to go, ‘Well, if I had done a little bit more maybe I could have left him with no (excuse) and he would have had to pick me’. You always look back and go, ‘I could have done better there, I could have done better there’. That is what I have tried to do.”
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