British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has reiterated his warning to Leinster and Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton over his chances of securing a Lions place.
The 31-year-old has yet to feature for Ireland in the Six Nations and with two games already played, there is still no definite word on his fitness ahead of the crucial clash with France on February 25th.
In his absence, Ulster’s Paddy Jackson has been in imperious form and there is a growing debate whether he should be allowed stay on as starting out-half, regardless of Sexton’s availability or not.
Now, with an eye on the upcoming Lions tour of New Zealand in the summer, head coach Warren Gatland has fired a warning at the oft-injured Leinster man, reminding him that there are a number of players putting their hands up for selection.
This follows a similar message from the New Zealander only two weeks ago.
Reported by the Irish Times, Gatland says,
“Absolutely there’s a lot of competition for a lot of places. I’ve reiterated and stressed what a quality player Johnny is. He’s got ability to come back into a side.
“He’s going to be pretty important for Ireland later on in the tournament and Joe [Schmidt] was cautious last week in that he probably could have played. Players had an opportunity against Italy, which was a very good performance from Ireland.”
Picking out the out-half position, Gatland warns,
“Johnny is well aware. It’s not just Johnny, there are a number of players . . . The last thing I want is to make a big issue of it. You guys want to create headlines. Johnny Sexton it is a nice story for you.
“He’s a world-class quality player and I want to see him back on the field. They’re taking the right steps at the moment, being precautionary and making sure he is 100 per cent right. I’m hoping he puts a few games together . . . he’s well aware of that.
“The key is trying to hold the body together. Players are going to have to be physically pretty versatile as well. It’s going to be a pretty attritional tour. Hopefully we can keep players of real quality fit. We are going to pick up injuries in New Zealand.”
Having suffered a number of injuries in recent seasons that have seen him miss significant blocks of time is something of a concern both for Ireland fans, coaches and now Gatland, as he prepares to pick a squad of players who can travel to the belly of the beast and defeat the two-time defending World Champions.
What started as a seemingly innocuous calf muscle bruise suffered against Castres on January 20th, has now seen the Lions hopeful spend the last month out of action, with no return in sight.
This is certainly not the kind of performance or preparation an aspiring Lion will want at this crucial part of the season and there is now a genuine concern the world class number 10 could be left behind.
With places still up for grabs, the only thing that is certain is that time is running out.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena