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talking point Only blinkered believe Warren Gatland shafted Johnny Sexton after Lions snub


Massive South Africans would target Sexton.

Massive South Africans would target Sexton.

Massive South Africans would target Sexton.

As with all beloved listed buildings, Irish opinion tends to inflame at even the tiniest defacing of Johnny Sexton's reputation.

All the more so when it is Warren Gatland flourishing the graffiti spray can.

Gatland acquired the status of pantomime villain back in 2013 when committing the mortal sin of dropping Brian O'Driscoll for the decisive third Lions test against Australia.

It didn't matter that it was the pragmatic call, one entirely justified by the performance of Jonathan Davies in clinching the series, Ireland scrambled to the high moral ground and arrowed endless quivers of toxic insults down on the Kiwi.

Now the dour New Zealander - once memorably likened to a "menopausal warthog" - has vandalised another untouchable edifice, crudely carved his initials into the heritage fabric of Ireland's Number Ten.

In erasing Sexton's name from his 37-man South African travelling party, Gatland has persuaded the self-righteous and social media snipers to take scattergun aim.

That he also omitted Garry Ringrose, named Ireland's Player of the Year just four months ago, and James Ryan, once touted as a potential Lions captain for this tour, gave an added noxious coating to the easily offended's verbal darts.

On Thursday, the A&E departments clogged up with rugby fans choking on their own sanctimony.


Perspective was again scattered to the wind in the rush to depict Gatland as an Antipodean reincarnation of Cromwell.

Entirely overlooked was the impeccable wisdom that informed all three non-selections.

Sexton has built a career of soaring landmarks, gathered in so many glories with his nerve and competitive courage.

But if his refusal to shirk has facilitated his climb to the game's highest peaks, it has also invited brutal punishment from huge and pitiless opponents.

Sexton's status as the most vital component in any team on which he is selected paints a target on his chest: on so many of the biggest days he is tossed and pounded like a rag doll.

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As Gatland pointed out, the soon to be 36-year-old Dubliner has not played in three successive weeks since 2018.

The trio of Lions Tests fall within the space of 14 days. South Africa are the most monstrous and physical force in world rugby. The punishment meted out will be brutal.

Sexton's nature is not to take a backward step. Gatland cited fears over his durability; for those who have watched and admired Sexton the greater concern might have been the long-term damage a savage series of contests might inflict on a player with a grim history of concussions.

They would never say so publicly, but some of those closest to the Leinster playmaker, conscious of the inevitability of his brainbox being buffeted, might not have shared his devastation when the travelling party was unveiled.

Ryan appeared immune to gravity as he soared in his early days in Leinster blue and Irish green. A kind of oval-ball Brian Fenton, the towering lock famously didn't lose once in his first 23 professional games.

A year ago the consensus was he would partner Maro Itoje in the Lions Test team; there was even talk of the captaincy being reduced to a private duel between the two totemic second rows.

In the event, the captaincy went to a third lock, the timeless and grizzled Welshman, Alun Wyn Jones.

Ryan's form, meanwhile, fell off the edge of a cliff. Returning from injury, he struggled to make an impact, monstered in successive games by rivals from Munster and La Rochelle.

That Tadhg Beirne should detonate so spectacularly over the past year, making the kind of compelling statement Gatland could not ignore, meant the door was no more than slightly ajar for Ryan.

La Rochelle's Will Skelton, a facsimile of the kind of powerhouse forward the Lions will face in Johannesburg and Cape Town, slammed it closed when completely outplaying the Irishman last weekend.

At maximum torque and confidence, Ringrose is among the most thrilling sights in all of sport, a gliding, inventive force capable of safe-cracking the most securely bolted defence.

But that version of the Leinster centre has gone AWOL in recent months.

Again injuries - jaw and ankle - were major potholes, while there have been a drip-drip of stories about him struggling outside the highly structured environment that was Joe Schmidt's coaching calling card.

Ringrose, like so many of Leinster's bigger names, was anonymous against La Rochelle.

For a player so often compared to his fellow Blackrock alumni, O'Driscoll, to miss out on a Lions tour for a second time is devastating.

If Robbie Henshaw's sparkling form earned him automatic choice status, Bundee Aki is a left-field inclusion.

Aki lacks Ringrose's craft, but again Gatland was influenced by an eternal truth: size matters against the huge men from the high veldt.

Irish rugby - despite serial World Cup failures - has never been short of self-regard.

One Dublin publication canvassed four experts to select their Lions squad last week. They respectively included 11, 10, 11 again and 13 Irish players.

Gatland, ignoring such one-eyed fervour, settled on eight green shirts.

Tadhg Furlong is a certain Test starter, with Henshaw having exceptional claims on the 12 shirt and a revitalised Conor Murray holding a strong hand in a weak scrum-half field.

Beirne's career trajectory and his versatility should secure him a bench spot at least.

But parochialism means the antennae of Irish fans will be raised in the hope of identifying failings in the performance of the starting out-half, be that Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar or Finn Russell.

That Gatland was entirely logical in leaving Sexton behind will not matter. For a sizeable portion of the green audience, the treatment of a listed building places the coach beyond redemption, the sporting equivalent of the Kiwi spray-painting "The Warthog Was 'Ere" on the GPO façade.

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