Greig Laidlaw is backing Johnny Sexton to prove his “world-class” abilities all over again in New Zealand after the Ireland playmaker endured a tough opening with the British and Irish Lions at the weekend.
Sexton fluffed his lines in his worst performance in some time as the Lions laboured to a sloppy 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday.
He must surely have ceded ground in the race for the Lions’ Test No 10 shirt, especially as Owen Farrell replaced him in Whangarei and dragged the lacklustre tourists to a slender victory. Sexton had trudged off after just 48 minutes of the match, removed in part due to a potential leg injury but also after a pretty miserable display.
Scotland scrum-half Laidlaw insisted, however, that Sexton can still turn his poor start on its head and restore his much-vaunted reputation.
“We know the class of Johnny, he is a world-class player,” said Laidlaw, pictured below. “For nines and 10s, we probably have the hardest job trying to organise everything around us and concentrate on our own game.
“It’s always a little bit tougher and when the heat is on everyone is looking to you to make the calls.
“Johnny will be back up and running next time he pulls on the jersey. The more you play together, the more he would know what I was going to do, just building the relationship. It’s about making sure you do that by practising hard in training going forward.”
The Lions’ gruelling schedule has been dissected ad nauseam in the build-up to their punishing ten-match tour. And playing their first match after just four days in the country took a clear toll on head coach Warren Gatland’s men.
The Provincial Barbarians showed slick, aggressive interplay at jarring odds with the sloppy, sluggish and error-strewn approach of the big-name tourists, who turned around in embarrassing arrears at half-time.
The hosts’ captain, Sam Anderson-Heather, is a self-employed maintenance engineer who squeezes in his rugby around his day job. But he still managed to wriggle home here for the game’s sole first-half score.
The Baa-Baas boasted a 7-3 lead at the interval, Bryn Gatland – son of Lions coach Warren – converting Anderson-Heather’s score, and Sexton posting a penalty in reply.
The tourists lacked intensity, incision and accuracy, and Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg butchered two near dead-cert tries by fluffing the scoring pass – first miscuing his effort to Anthony Watson, then failing to ship on at all with fellow Scotland and Glasgow team-mate Tommy Seymour awaiting a walk-in.
Sexton had to let Laidlaw slot a second-half penalty after receiving treatment and then he made way for Farrell. The England stand-off, pictured below, had hardly set foot on the sodden Toll Stadium turf when he first set Ross Moriarty loose, then provided the scoring pass for Watson’s decisive try and then converted it.
The Lions will now face the Blues on Wednesday in Auckland, as the New Zealand tour cranks through the levels – but Laidlaw has insisted Gatland’s side can quickly hit their stride after a poor start.
“I am absolutely delighted and very honoured to have worn the jersey,” said Laidlaw.
“Now I have got the taste of it I want to get out there again. Next time I get an opportunity I want to get out there and play again.
“There were a lot of positive things from the coaches. They were delighted with the win and just want to keep pressing on now, keep getting better day in, day out, and making sure next time we take the field we are a bit better so we can go on and win more games.
“It was very calm at half-time, which was good. It was calm heads and calm voices which we had just to be able to build that second-half performance.
“We were hanging on at times in the first half, so it was good messages at half-time and we came out and executed in the second half.
“We stepped off the plane and were straight into it. But we are happy to win. We created opportunities, even though we didn’t take them. But we would more worried if we weren’t creating opportunities.
“Time together in the saddle will be very important now in training, putting together combinations and the team that goes out together on Wednesday, that is the next task in hand.
“We need to make sure we go and win that now.”