Sexton AND Farrell
People say there’s no substitute for speed, but intelligence is the trait I value most. I’ve always liked having a ball player at inside centre. It’s an extra pair of eyes, another decision maker, a second quarterback if you like. It allows a team to play more expansively and provides a secondary distributor in open play. The value is in the ability to get the danger-men in the outside backs more involved. Having that extra playmaker takes pressure off a fly half. Think of Mike Catt for England or Matt Giteau in the twelve shirt for Australia and the fluidity their skills brought to a backline.
Owen Farrell is more of a hybrid though, a more physically imposing player than the likes of Catt and Giteau. He’s strong defensively and can be more of a threat running the ball. We’ve already seen the success England have had deploying him in the centre. That’s why I think Gatland will seriously consider it, even though it would be a departure from the norm for him. It all depends on how the Lions want to play. Expansively and inventively with Farrell at twelve, or engage in the arm wrestle and select more traditional centres like Te’o and Davies.
We know Gatland likes big ball carrying centres. The All Blacks know it as well. Steve Hanson jibed that they’ve “never seen him (Gatland) do anything else”. Hanson isn’t too far wide. The selection of Davies or Te’o at inside centre looks more and more likely. In fact Te’o at twelve and Davies at thirteen is also a distinct possibility! It wouldn’t be too far a departure from Gatland’s tried and tested Welsh partnership that started the third test in Australia four years ago. Are you really going to out-muscle the All Blacks though? Sonny Bill and co. I’m not so sure.
So that leads to the question as to what extent Gatland’s selection will be influenced by whom the All Blacks pick in the centres. If Sonny Bill plays at inside centre and is partnered, for example, by the the freakish Reiko Ioane, then I think I want Davies or Te’o there as a countermeasure. If however, the All Blacks go with the likes of Crotty and Fekitoa, I think there’s scope to be creative and play both Sexton and Farrell. Crotty and Fekitoa, though certainly not lacking size and power, won’t give you the trouble that SBW and Ioane bring. Fekitoa often makes poor defensive reads and can be targeted at outside centre. Anyway, it’s too early to tell who the All Blacks will line up with. We’ll leave that speculation for closer to ‘D’ day.
I think the Farrell and Sexton experiment will be given a test drive early in the tour, but ultimately, I think Gatland goes with what he knows when they face the All Blacks. The question then is, who gets the number 10 jersey?
Sexton OR Farrell
So who is the better fly half? Let’s break it down simply in a few areas.
Goal kicking – Farrell
Distribution – Equal
Defence – Farrell
Tactical kicking – Equal
Game management – Sexton
Tactical awareness – Sexton
Attacking threat – Equal
Who’s dad is coaching – Farrell
Other factors to take into consideration:
Leigh Halfpenny – If he can squirm his way into the test team ahead of Hogg, or even as well as Hogg, then he takes the goal kicking duties and an ace up Owen Farrell’s sleeve becomes redundant.
The scrum half – If Murray gets himself fit and plays like we know he can, then it becomes very hard to break up the Irish half back connection. You can’t put a price on that experience or relationship. On the other hand, if Murray isn’t considered or favoured for whatever reason, then Farrell has the benefit of experience with Youngs, or may be more suited to a similar player like Webb. I’m not saying that Farrell can’t play with Murray and that Webb and Sexton wouldn’t work, only that combinations at certain positions can be extremely important when coming together as a touring side.
Verdict: There is very little between these two players. I’d feel better with Sexton as my fly half but Farrell is more than capable. Ultimately, I think Gatland would favour Farrell’s toughness but will look to keep the Irish partnership at nine and ten intact.
A lot can happen between now and then. I just hope Gatland doesn’t dismiss too easily, when he is choosing between Sexton and Farrell, that the smartest choice could be both.