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Why Gatland has to hand Sexton the keys to number 10.

Byline: Andy Howell Rugby correspondent andy.howell@walesonline.co.uk

WARREN Gatland was at the centre of a storm four years ago when he dropped Brian O'Driscoll from his Lions team for the deciding third Test with Australia.

At that time he was on the receiving end of a mountain of criticism from Ireland's media and rugby fans after picking his Wales star Jonathan Davies ahead of the fading great following the recovery of Jamie Roberts from a hamstring injury.

But the Lions coach was proved right when they wrapped up the series with a record 41-16 thrashing of the Wallabies in Sydney. Now Gatland has another major decision to make and it's one which is sure to be contentious and stoke up the media in a certain country if he makes what, in my opinion, is the correct call.

It concerns No.10 - the most important position in any union team - and for me there's only one choice if the Lions want to increase their chances of beating New Zealand in Saturday's vital opening rubber of the three-game series ... and it's not Owen Farrell.

Gatland has to start with Johnny Sexton because he's a better player. He was the orchestrator of the conquest of Australia and last autumn was a pivotal figure in Ireland beating the All Blacks for the first time in history to end their world record winning streak.

Sexton is a tactical controller New Zealand respect and outplayed Beauden Barrett in Chicago. Fast forward a few weeks to the return in Dublin and the All Blacks had put Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander, who had arguably been Ireland's three best players at Soldier Field, off with some dubious challenges in the opening half.

Farrell is a manufactured player and I'd argue Wales play-maker Dan Biggar has performed better than him at outsidehalf during this tour.

Sure, Farrell has improved since playing second-fiddle to Sexton in Australia for the Lions but benefits when he plays at No.10 with Saracens from the armchair ride provided by Europe's top club pack.

Canny England boss Eddie Jones picks Farrell at inside-centre because he arguably doesn't possess the razor-sharp instincts of the very best on-field generals to instantly react to situations.

Sexton (pictured) sees things early and was masterful in the 32-10 walloping the Lions dished out against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua last weekend. Kicking for position against New Zealand will have to be inch-perfect and Sexton usually provides unerring accuracy with his touchfinders and raking diagonal punts.

He also pressed in defence as the Lions shut down a dangerous Maori back-line, threatened on attack with a couple of off-thecuff half-breaks after spotting gaps the seemingly slower off the mark Farrell would find difficult to exploit and may not have seen, and worked some clever back-line wrap-arounds in attack out of the Ireland play-book.

The English media will be outraged if Gatland picks Sexton ahead of Farrell although there's a possibility both could start with the latter at No.12.

Although the Lions coaching staff claimed Sexton and Farrell hadn't trained as a midfield combo before they found themselves together on the pitch against the Crusaders after injury forced Davies off early, Sexton revealed they had been working on it for three weeks.

But, assuming Gatland sticks with the inform Ben Te'o and Davies as his centres, there will only be room for Sexton or Farrell.

Both are proven medalwin-ners but, for me, it's Sexton who brings that something extra the Lions will need against New Zealand.

Gatland must pick him at No.10 because game-management and dragging the Kiwis into a northern hemisphere style arm-wrestle provides their best chance of beating the All Blacks.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jun 20, 2017
Words:618
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