'Johnny Sexton completely outplayed Farrell and Russell in the Six Nations'
"Ah, it’s got to be Johnny."
For Fergus McFadden, the omission of Johnny Sexton from the British & Irish Lions squad, on Thursday, was the biggest and most baffling of all.
The Ireland captain had the start of his Six Nations campaign hindered by a concussion he picked up against Wales, which forced him to miss the home defeat to France. The doubters emerged and Sexton did what he has so often done - let his rugby do the talking.
He played all 80 minutes of the final three games of the championship, was excellent in all three games and kicked 25 from his 26 attempts on goal. Even at though he would be turning 36 this summer, Sexton looked to have nailed down a spot on his third Lions tour. And then, another concussive blow.
He lasted only 27 minutes of Leinster's Champions Cup quarter final win over Exeter Chiefs and, sat out under the Return To Play protocols, missed games against Munster and La Rochelle. Lions head coach Warren Gatland said the outhalf's "durability", or perceived lack thereof, was key in his thinking not to select him. Neil Jenkins, his kicking coach, said the concussions were "concerning".
McFadden, who played with Sexton for over a decade, believes there is more to it than that.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [LISTEN from 1:30] McFadden and Ulster outhalf Ian Madigan spoke about the controversial call to leave Sexton at home.
In his column for the BBC, former England and Lions scrumhalf Matt Dawson reasoned why Gatland may have gone with Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Dan Biggar.
'Sexton has not been at the races,' he wrote. 'I know him and Conor Murray played well against England in the Six Nations but physically he goes off a lot with his injuries. He has not been as sharp as he has been in the last three or four years.'
While Sexton, and most of the Ireland senior stars dipped in 2019 [after winning World Rugby Team of the Year in 2018], he looked dialled in last year, and in 2021 until the concussion issue arose.
"I would have been convinced he was going," Fergus McFadden admitted. "Really gutted for him now, to be honest.
"I was shocked and, I think, everyone would have been shocked with that call. I’m sure the coaches have their reasons. Maybe the fact that there was no Irish coach on the coaching ticket - no-one there to talk reason into it. Because I think they’ll miss him over there, personally."
Madigan pointed out how Sexton had come up with two big performances when it counted - exactly as Gatland would ask of all potential Lions - against his Six Nations rivals.
The Ulster outhalf, who was a Leinster and Ireland teammate of Sexton for his seasons, commented:
"The biggest frustration for him, is you look at the guys that have been picked ahead of him - the likes of Owen Farrell or Finn Russell - he completely outplayed them in the Six Nations.
"I think Dan Biggar definitely deserves to go. He led Wales throughout the Six Nations, thy won the competition. I’d have no qualms with that, but I’d be very much in the same camp with Fergus, in that Johnny offers a huge amount on the field, and off it, and I think they’ll really miss him."
When it came to some of the other squad selections, McFadden said he felt English hookers Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie could both consider themselves fortunate to have made the cut.
England finished fifth in the Six Nations, their club sides have underwhelmed in the Champions Cup and Saracens are battling to get promoted back to the Premiership with many of the top players only finding their way into some sort of form now.
"If you look at England’s Six Nations and how they’ve fared, and played, a number of their guys can see themselves as lucky," McFadden declared.
"Look, if you’re going to say that Johnny Sexton extremely unlucky [not] to go, then you’d have to say that Owen Farrell is extremely lucky to go, because I didn’t think he had a good Six Nations. It was a shock that he was included and Johnny wasn’t.
"Dan Biggar, yeah, brilliant. He had a brilliant Six Nations, they won the competition; fine. Finn Russell does something different, the other 10s don’t bring. Grand, you bring him. But between Johnny and Owen, I don’t understand how Johnny was not picked. I could only presume it’s because Owen plays 12 as well."
Madigan noted that Farrell, the England captain, was listed as a centre in the Lions squad. McFadden was not buying it.
"I guarantee you, he’ll play a lot of 10 over there. I guarantee. Well, maybe they’ll prove me wrong but I can see him playing more 10 than 12 over there."
Agreeing with that point, Madigan said, "Even in a match-day squad, you need one starting and one on the bench. There’s only three of them over there, with the quick turnaround of games, he’ll have to be either playing out-half or covering out-half."
As he has shown in the past, Gatland is not afraid to take risky calls. They don't always pay off, but he has a series win over Australia and a draw with New Zealand [and three Grand Slams with Wales] as credit in the bank.
It will be strange to see the Lions in Test match action without Sexton but, to Gatland and many fans, the ends may yet justify the means.
WATCH THAT EPISODE HERE: