Cool Sexton rises above flaws and confusion
Sometimes too much clarity can fog the mind. On Saturday in Twickenham, Leinster knew what they wanted, got what they wanted, yet greeted the final whistle with barely concealed anguish, as if fearful of what they might get.
A draw reflected the often lengthy longeurs, and yet the dramatic denouement -- three-pointers swapped in the final two minutes -- could have entitled either side to deservedly claim victory or unreservedly accept defeat.
And so London Irish were propelled from chirpy Heineken Cup quarter-finalists to tuneless wonders within an extraordinary closing 15-minute spell's excitement, which was from an entirely different galaxy to the 65 minutes of tedium that had preceded it.
Chris Malone's miscued efforts from the tee were the ultimate difference; had he a cat on which to take out his frustration, he probably would have missed that too. His was but one of some extraordinary cameos late in the surreal piece.
"We have given those fans some heart attacks and high blood-pressure along the way," offered the stunningly effective Gordon D'Arcy. He was so right. In the final reel, Rob Kearney was clearly feeling the opposition out-half's pain because, after Malone's seemingly final contribution to the day from a dropped goal went wide, Kearney promptly returned the ball to him to have another go.
Thankfully, inevitably, Malone missed again. What on earth had Kearney been thinking?
"Don't ask me that, you know I don't like lying!" chortled Leinster coach Michael Cheika in the aftermath. "One thing I will say is that it shows just how much pressure is in these games, how tense they are.
"He is as cool as a cucumber, and I'm not out there, but I know how much pressure I'm feeling on the sidelines, so I can imagine how they are feeling on the pitch. I can totally understand."
Leinster, who should have skated home to collect the win, despite their occasionally dire efforts, concluded the curious affair by holding collective heads in hands, their body language betraying the fact that they had secured the goal of which they had spoken all week -- a coveted home quarter-final.
Such was the importance of Jonathan Sexton's 79th-minute equalising drop-goal: it could be worth a tidy sum if Leinster decide to decamp to Croke Park. Yet it seemed as if the arm-wheeling out-half was the only man on the field who knew it.
"We knew we needed the drop-goal to land a home quarter final," said Sexton.
"When they took the lead with so little time left on the clock, the home draw was on the line so we knew what we had to do. We had to get the ball down the field and work the position and thankfully we did that.
"We were calm at the time and we had the belief to go and get the score and we did just that."
Cheika's observations were tinged with ambiguity.
"We did send a message down that the draw was good enough, but whether they got it or not, I don't know," he said. "But they know the story; they are smart enough footballers to get back in the game."
The tension and confusion, though, was reflected in some curious decision-making from Cheika's side.
Twenty minutes before Sexton's wondrous kick, those of us attached to ref-links could clearly hear the out-half bellowing at captain Leo Cullen for the ball when Leinster stood 8-3 up.
Having survived 10 minutes at 0-0 despite the sin-binning of Cian Healy, it was a big surprise when the pair opted to kick to the corner.
Sexton's first act in last year's Heineken Cup semi-final had been to arrow a much more difficult kick between the posts, and his marksmanship was tremendous in the November internationals. 11-3, in such a tight game, would effectively have closed the deal. The captain clearly thought otherwise.
"It was a pretty tough kick," explained Cullen. "It was one of those marginal calls. It was between Sexton and myself and we went for the corner. It was a pretty tough kick, right on the five-metre line. It would have been different if it was from the initial line-out, the 10- or 15-metre line, but it was on the five-metre line."
Leinster, though, messed up that close-range line-out and Irish scampered back into the red zone from where it seemed they were fated never to make an incision, until Seilala Mapusua thwacked Sexton into the ground as ferociously as a mallet upon a fairground mole, creating the momentum for Malone, of all people, to engineer a close-in mis-match against the forwards union.
Clearly suffering delirium following an adequately-completed task, he fluffed the simple two-pointer. Malone did better, though, when Sean O'Brien conceded a penalty soon afterwards, the Exiles out-half putting his side 11-8 ahead.
Credit to O'Brien, and also to Shane Horgan. Leinster came up with the big play when needed -- as is the wont of champions -- both men conspiring to turn over Delon Armitage from an excellently chased restart, before John Fogarty's stunning drive gave Sexton the platform for his coup de grace.
Leinster's other significant play came before the break, a powerful and for once effective scrum, one which didn't fall prey to one of Nigel Owens' many quirks, enabling Isa Nacewa to eventually find space on the blindside and cross in the corner.
It was a somewhat surprising half-time lead as Irish had dominated but Leinster's defence had held firm, over-riding concerns about the mistaken Bernard Jackman selection, the scrummaging difficulties and some haphazard alignments in back play.
And yet despite so many flaws, they were still able to eke out a result while Irish, unbeaten against the champions, bow out.
"They've got steadily better as the competition goes on," their coach, Toby Booth, said of Leinster. "I'm on record before about how centrally-contracted controlled players lend themselves to this tournament because it's almost like an international format.
"You can pick and choose, and you can work people over in terms of them being fresh for the competition. So I think the structure they play gives them an advantage over the French and English clubs.
"But what I like about Leinster is they play front-foot rugby, simple, effective rugby with a lot flair. They are not afraid to push it around. Our mantra is attack, good over evil beats defence. But the best sides that win championships defend well. And what you've seen in this game is a fantastic defensive performance and I think that will hold them in good stead."
After a bizarre evening, at least that much was clear.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; C Malone, P Hodgson; C Dermody (D Murphy 72), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion 60); N Kennedy, B Casey (G Johnson 80); T Thorpe, S Armitage (K Roche 60), C Hala'ufia.
Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (Y 47-57), B Jackman (J Fogarty 30), CJ van der Linde; L Cullen (M O'Kelly 65), N Hines; K McLaughlin, S Jennings (S O'Brien 58), J Heaslip.
REF: N Owens (Wales).