British & Irish Lions Comment
Lucky Lions must keep Sexton fit
June 10, 2013
Lions fly-half Owen Farrell may hold his own in defence but question marks remain about his playmaking ability © Getty Images
Lions coach Warren Gatland was determinedly upbeat after the Lions' hard fought victory over the Queensland Reds - 'Just what we needed……a reality check…….a reminder of how much the Australians want to beat the Lions…..we think we're in shape physically……it all looks good,' was the message.
Brave words but I am not so sure the facts bear them out. The Lions desperately needed a really competitive match after the training runs in Hong Kong and Perth and the Reds certainly gave them a real run ('run' being the operative word) for their money. They came through it but perhaps needed more luck than Gatland was prepared to admit.
Whilst the Lions' goal kicking was yet again perfect - this time it was Owen Farrell landing six out of six - the Reds missed two sitters. Had they gone over a penalty would have been enough to take the lead in the closing stages but they had to go for a try instead.
It was also a day when the Lions lost a couple of important players. Again Gatland made light of it but Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins were his first pick loose-heads and although Mako Vunipola has started the tour really well it has to be a worry because the scrum is one area where the Lions will be hoping for a significant advantage.
Although there is now hope that Tommy Bowe will recover in time for the second Test, his injury is also a blow. He made one marvellous break against the Reds and looked a certainty for the right wing spot in two weeks' time. To add to their woes Jonny Sexton has a 'tight' hamstring and they have had to select Stuart Hogg at outside-half for tomorrow's game. If that hamstring is worse than at first diagnosed and does not clear up quickly the Lions' attacking potential really will be compromised because he looks a far more assured playmaker than Owen Farrell.
It all means that the Lions are suddenly way behind in their preparations. Gatland admitted as much yesterday when he said, 'to be honest, the tour is probably two matches too short for us……you would like a couple more warm-up matches going into that first Test.' The team for Tuesday is again experimental and looking at the lack of experience in the Combined Country side - most of the players are either fringe Super Rugby squad members with only a handful of replacement appearances between them whilst a couple are just club players who have never played professional rugby - the game might not be testing enough for the Lions: it should be another rout.
The match against the Reds, however, was a real contest. It was played at terrific pace and travelling down to Newcastle on the plane with the Lions it was interesting to hear the reactions. Neil Jenkins summed it up when he said, 'The Wallabies won't play that way, thank goodness.'
Under Robbie Deans they have tried to develop a more structured game but The Reds certainly tested the Lions defence with their running game and the Wallaby coach, who is under intense pressure it seems, would do well to take note.
The Lions defended superbly - they had to - and a lesser side might well have crumbled but the way they got back in numbers when the Reds had broken through the first line of defence bodes well for the Tests. That aspect of their game is definitely up to speed.
And it does not appear as if they will have to deal with the box of tricks that is Quade Cooper unless Deans has a complete change of heart, something that appears very unlikely given the recent rhetoric between the two. Cooper made some mistakes on Saturday but his passing game is brilliant - two wonderfully accurate wide passes (rifled away with apparently no effort) in the first five minutes should have produced a try that would have rocked the Lions but, fortunately, his team-mates were not quite good enough to take full advantage.
Deans hates the looseness of his game and, one suspects, some of the risk taking. He seems committed to James O'Connor even though Cooper completely outplayed him when the Reds met the Rebels a couple of weeks ago. Accusations made by Cooper that the atmosphere within the Wallaby camp is 'toxic' have not helped his cause but he won the full backing of his Queensland coach, Ewen McKenzie, who vowed he would pick Cooper every time.
It was very significant that, despite being murdered in the scrums and outplayed in the line-outs, Queensland had 63% of the possession in the first half. That was a credit to Cooper's commitment to running the ball but was also an indictment of Owen Farrell. His place kicking may have been faultless but he just kicks too much out of hand and as it is often aimless he simply gives the opposition the chance to counterattack.
If he does that against the Wallabies they will take full advantage so I believe the next week is going to be crucial to the success of the Lions. They need Sexton fit because his all-round game is hugely superior to Farrell's and they need Vunipola or Alex Corbisiero to prove they are up to the job at loose-head.
There are still a huge number of unknowns in other areas but those selection issues will not be causing Gatland and his inner sanctum sleepless nights because he will be picking from strength. I still do not have a clue about his centre pairing or who will be in the back-row but this time next week all will be revealed.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist