After reading an intriguing email sent in by one of our readers I decided to take a closer look at the play of Jonathan Sexton these past few weeks. What I found was interesting. I believe that the Lions are intentionally shielding or hiding Sexton. I also believe that Sexton is the biggest defensive liability in the Lions squad right now and could even potentially be carrying an injury of some kind.
New South Wales Hospitality
More than in any other game so far, Jonathan Sexton was given a bit of ‘special attention’ during the Lions match with the Waratahs. After being smashed by Will Skelton early on in the match Sexton was nearly bent in half during a ruck around the half hour mark. After the Skelton hit he was very slow to get up and required attention from the medical staff through the duration of the conversion kick which followed the first Tom Carter try.
Following that particularly nasty ruck Mr. Sexton could clearly be seen hobbling back towards the midfield. Initially I thought that it may have just been a stinger. But, if you watch the next clip he pretty clearly pulls up suddenly after kicking the restart – a couple of minutes later. It could have been an especially bad stinger but the way Jonny was suddenly bent forward in that ruck could have caused some sort of back or hamstring damage. Below is a video including all of the moments I have just referred to.
On a Short Leash
Whether or not Jonny Sexton is carrying some kind of injury is very much up for debate. While something was clearly amiss at points during the Waratahs match he seemed to be running fine and even hit a couple of rucks on Saturday. What became obvious during the first test though was that Sexton has not defended particularly well on tour so far, and that Gatland is clearly protecting him to some degree.
While Mr. Sexton still defends in the front line off of set pieces he rarely brought the man to ground without the help of one of the loose forwards or Jonathan Davies. In general play though he quickly disappears to the fringes of the defense, tending to stay very far away from the ball. When he is not hovering near the touch line he is often one of the two players behind the line waiting for kicks. None of this should be very surprising to anyone though. Sexton is head-and-shoulders the best flyhalf in the Lions squad and this was only cemented after Owen Farrell’s starts early in the tour. It is in the best interest of the Lions to protect him.
But by pushing Sexton towards the fringes of the defense or to behind the line the Lions have created a very clear vulnerability. This weakness was easily exploited by Israel Folau during the run in for his second try. By forcing one of the weaker tacklers in the squad towards the fringes the Lions have actually put him directly in the line of fire.
As Scott Allen has already covered, the most easily exploitable spaces in the Lions defensive pattern are behind and around the line. Israel Folau and Nick Cummins/Joe Tomane should be salivating at the opportunity to run at a man, in space, who they outweigh by 10kgs+ and who has a tendency to plant his feet.
To top all of this off Sexton simply hasn’t looked himself on attack thus far. Those who watch Sexton play for Ireland and Leinster have probably noticed this. I haven’t seen him hit what I would consider to be his top speed at any point so far. While not the fastest 10 in the world, his pace has looked very ordinary so far this tour. He also generally loves to take on the line (especially for Leinster) and uses a short passing game and quick stepping to squirt through gaps. He has no problem taking a few shoulders when he does this. I’ve yet to see him play the way he does in Ireland. So far it looks like he has been on a pretty tight leash under Gatland not just on defense, but in attack as well.
Included in the message from our supporter was a very interesting point about the second Folau try – Sexton had little reaction to being beaten so easily and was not consoled by a single Lions player following the incident. In the modern era of the ubiquitous bum tap – that’s odd. It’s clear that the Lions are intentionally placing him in that position to keep him out of harm’s way as best they can, but even in that case the miss was still unacceptable by all means.
So why would Sexton and the rest of the Lions players react that way to him missing such a crucial tackle so badly? Was it really not such a big surprise because of what he’s carrying? Are they a little peeved that so much is being risked on an injured player?
In case anyone forgot what the second Folau try looked like, here you go.
Remember that Gatland has little choice at 10, with Farrell being patchy and no other real alternative this side of Toulon. Keeping a crocked Jonny on the field is a risk he’d surely be willing to take.
What needs to be done by the Wallabies now is fairly obvious – get Jonny.