Ollie Phillips: Selecting Johnny Sexton will either be a stroke of genius or a car crash for the British and Irish Lions

 
Ollie Phillips
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Crusaders v British & Irish Lions
Farrell, left, and Sexton, right, will both start for the Lions against New Zealand on Saturday (Source: Getty)

Warren Gatland’s dual selection of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell in the Lions backline is either going to be a stroke of tactical genius or a total car crash. It’s a roll of the dice, a hell of a call, but I don’t think it’s the right one.

Ben Te’o, who Farrell has replaced at inside centre for tomorrow’s second Test in Wellington, has been one of the standout Lions players on this tour. As soon as he was taken off in the first Test, Sonny Bill Williams started causing problems.

I think Sonny Bill will be absolutely delighted to see Farrell in front of him in midfield. That’s not because the 25-year-old’s defensively weak – far from it – but I don’t see him ending Williams, whereas twice at Eden Park Te’o absolutely pulverised him.

I can’t help but feel Gatland is feeling the pressure a little bit. I understand the theory behind the selection of Sexton and Farrell: the Lions want to play with more width, greater expansion and creativity. It means the tourists are going to have a go at the All Blacks.

The Sexton-Farrell partnership should provide the team with greater vision in general. With the potency of their back three, if the Lions get it right then it could be dynamite.

It is a risk, though. The duo have not played together much and Sexton hasn’t been in the greatest form on tour. It’s also a massive departure from trying to match fire with fire and being physical and direct.

I may be proven wrong but I really worry about the Lions defensively. New Zealand have increased the physicality of their starting XV and I wonder whether the Lions can repel the barrage of black heading their way.

Suddenly the Lions’ backline looks defensively small and fragile and the make-up of the side potentially gives Sonny Bill the licence to cause havoc in what is a must-win game for the tourists.

In terms of the other selections, which have seen Sam Warburton and Maro Itoje replace Peter O’Mahony and George Kruis at blindside flanker and lock respectively, I believe those are the right calls.

Before the first Test everyone was talking about the need for the Lions to win the physical battle up front, but the All Blacks showed there is parity there, which has forced Gatland to think outside of the box.

O’Mahony is a good player but I didn’t feel he provided the back-row with the right balance. Warburton offers the option of another link player who can play a bit in the middle, but also someone who can secure the ball and be a grappler on the floor to slow everything down.

Itoje, meanwhile, is a more mobile operator who can play in the loose and he deserves his starting berth. With the changes, the Lions will try and occupy territory, pressure the line-out and scrums and really try to play expansively.

While it’s pleasing for Itoje, fellow locks Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson can count themselves unfortunate to miss out. Alun Wyn Jones, meanwhile, is lucky to be in there at second-row and probably makes the cut because Gatland knows him and feels he can trust him.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

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