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tough call Johnny Sexton outplayed his rivals in the Six Nations - so his Lions snub is odd

England didn't even chance putting Owen Farrell against Johnny in Dublin.

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Johnny Sexton was left out of Warren Gatland's Lions squad. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Johnny Sexton was left out of Warren Gatland's Lions squad. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Johnny Sexton was left out of Warren Gatland's Lions squad. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Power is all over Warren Gatland's selection of 37 players for the Lions Tour to South Africa in July and August of this year.

Not his personal power to select the squad, but power on the pitch - physicality, grunt, heft, ballast, call it what you want.

That is what Warren is going to be all about on this Lions tour.

And there is a clear and obvious example of that in one of the most controversial Irish selections, for power is the only way that Bundee Aki was chosen at centre ahead of Garry Ringrose.

No, the Lions this year won't be bringing subtlety, finesse or style to the Test matches, they'll be bringing human JCB's to meet their opponents straight on.

This will not be a Lions tour where a Mike Gibson or a Brian O'Driscoll might work their magic in the centre, where the England great Jason Robinson might dance his way down the wing.

This will be about being as big and strong in the collisions as your opponents - and winning those collisions.

After he revealed the travelling party last Thursday, Gatland remembered his days as an assistant coach with the 2009 pride of Lions, the last time they toured against the Springboks.

"The games against the provinces went well, but in the first Test we were hit by a physicality that we hadn't seen before," Gatland recalled.

Unspoken is the coach's desire that it does not happen again.

Gatland will also remember the last World Cup, when then Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus would replace six of a huge starting pack with somewhere between 25 and 10 minutes to go in each game.

The guys who came on, 'the Bomb-Squad', were equally powerful and then finished out the games against Japan, Wales and England that won them the World Cup.

'Gatty' clearly expects South Africa to go down the same road in two months time, and his Lions have been chosen with the notion of meeting fire with fire.

Somebody has to pay the price of that and Leinster and Ireland players are the ones counting the cost.

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Let's look at facts here. Ireland beat England rather cosily in the Six Nations two months ago, yet there are 11 English players in the Lions squad to eight Irish.

Calls that went England's way over Ireland are Elliott Daly as a utility back ahead of Keith Earls and Jonny Hill over James Ryan in the second row.

Saracens are the club with most players in the squad, five to Leinster's four.

Now Saracens are the club who cheated the Premiership's salary cap to win it, and they have been in England's 'B' division this season.

Leinster have been the shining light of the PRO14 for a number of seasons and have been strong and combative in Europe for the last four years.

Is Gatland now saying to us that the Pro14 is irrelevant?

That, if you want to tour Australia with the Lions in 2025, Irish players must be playing in the English Premiership or the Top 14 in France.

Let me put it to you this way, if you had told anyone a year ago that only one Leinster back would be on this Lions Tour, they would have laughed at you.

Captain

Twelve months ago also, James Ryan was a leading candidate to be the Lions captain. Now he's not even on the squad.

Our small number of players on this tour, and eight is small out of 37, when you consider the successes of Irish rugby in recent seasons, is down to two things.

The first is the perception out there that Irish rugby teams can be bullied out of it among the forwards when the chips are down.

We saw it against the All Blacks in the World Cup in 2019, we saw it for Ireland against England in recent times until the Aviva in March.

We saw it for Leinster against Saracens in the European Cup twice, and we saw it for Leinster against La Rochelle last Sunday.

Like the guy in Jaws who wanted a bigger boat, do we just go out and get bigger guys from abroad and break up the system that the IRFU has used so well to protect the game in this country?

I suppose until Ireland or Leinster's pack batter some big team, they will always be vulnerable in a selection room like this, where the coach wants power and physicality above all.

And that brings me to the second point - the selection room.

Two decades ago, Warren Gatland and the IRFU had a frosty parting and the relationship has never been good since. That may have contributed to a situation where there was no Irishman in the Lions selection room last Wednesday.

Robin McBryde is a Leinster scrum coach, but he's Welsh.

Gatland is now involved in his fourth Lions tour on the spin.

He surely won't be around in 2025, so it is time for the IRFU to get back involved in the Lions administration and ensure that there is a top Irish coach at the heart of the action in four years time.

And by 'top Irish coach', I mean Leo Cullen or Ronan O'Gara.

A number of Irish players Keith Earls, James Ryan, CJ Stander and Johnny Sexton, lost out on a Lions tour because there was no one to fight for them with the passion that Leo or Ronan would have brought to the table if they were present.

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Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton

There was no Irish coach at the table, there were two from Scotland, including the national coach.

Each country got eight places, Ireland beat Scotland handily in the Six Nations. I rest my case.

Thousands of words have been written about Sexton's Lions omission.

Johnny outplayed Wales' Dan Biggar in this season's Six Nations, even though 14-man Ireland lost the match.

Plague

He outplayed Finn Russell in the Scottish match and England didn't even chance putting Owen Farrell against Johnny in Dublin.

If what happened to Johnny had happened to me at his age of 35, the stubborn Kerry hoor in me would say "a plague on both your houses" and I'd retire.

Johnny's stubborn too. Yet his reaction will most likely be - "right I'll take the summer off, I'll rest, and I'll show you what you missed when the All Blacks come to Dublin in November." Count on it!

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