Flawless Sexton nails his comeback
Zebre 22 Leinster 41
Brian O'Driscoll won the man-of-the-match award yesterday as Leinster put Zebre to the sword, but it was the performance of fit-again Jonathan Sexton which dominated post-match discussion.
Back in situ following a 10-week injury lay-off, the Lions hopeful kicked seven from seven in a performance that earned him a glowing reference from head coach Joe Schmidt.
Sexton proved an inspirational force as his team-mates ran in five tries against the Italians, taking Leinster back up to second place in the Rabo Direct, and one step closer to a home semi-final.
Tom Denton, Fergus McFadden, Fionn Carr, Dominic Ryan and Isa Nacewa were all amongst the try-scorers on a good day all round for Schmidt's men who look in fine fettle ahead of this weekend's Amlin Cup showdown against Biarritz.
Whether Sexton or rival Ian Madigan will don the No 10 shirt for that particular affair remains anyone's guess. Schmidt hinted that the six-day turnaround may influence his selection, presumably in favour of Madigan. But his appraisal of Sexton's performance suggested that he himself is still unsure.
"We would always back Jonny to make his kicks, but on top of that he got through a power of work, especially considering he hasn't played in so long," said Schmidt.
"It was great to have him back out there. He is a great general out on the field, and he gave us a fair bit of direction. We'll have our medicals tomorrow, and we'll see how guys have come through the game.
"In terms of next week, the six-day turnaround would probably favour fresher players, but at the same time Jonathan is a marquee player for us, and played with great surety today."
Sexton was at the heart of everything for a Leinster side which after 15 minutes looked as though they were on course for their biggest win of the season. Patient, controlled build-up play was their early modus operandi, and they were rewarded with two tries inside the opening quarter of an hour.
The first was a simple run-in for Denton out wide after some neat footwork and good hands by Andrew Goodman. Shortly after, McFadden was skirting home from roughly the same position after Sexton's killer pass saw him away.
The returning out-half kicked both conversions as well as an earlier penalty, and one wondered whether the bonus point would come before half-time.
However, the wheels began to buckle a little as the half wore on, and some desperately soft tackling saw Zebre tie up the scores before half-time, Sinoti Sinoti and Daniel Halangahu both crossing for converted tries.
Whatever Schmidt said at half-time seemed to have the desired effect for Leinster, who had reopened a 10-point lead within five minutes of the second half. Sexton firstly slotted home a penalty before angling a cross-field kick which stood up nicely for Nacewa, who in turn fed Carr for try number three.
And they didn't have to wait too much longer for the the all-important fourth try, scored by Ryan after a beautiful inside feed from Rhys Ruddock.
Nacewa added a fifth try from a quick-tap penalty, and once again Sexton converted, his last action before leaving the fray. Carlo Festuccia snuck home for a late Zebre try but it proved little more than a consolation.
"It was a case of coming over, getting the points, and not picking up any injuries really," said Schmidt.
"We have a semi-final next week followed by the Ospreys and then another semi-final, so it's nice now to be qualified for both, and we'll take each challenge as it comes."
Zebre – A Benettin (D Odiete 49-54); R Trevisan (D Odiete 54), G Venditti, M Pratichetti (L Orquera 65), S Sinoti; D Halangahu, A Chillon (T Tebaldi 48); M Aguero (A de Marchi 55), A Manici (C Festuccia 43), L Leibson (S Perugini 55); M Van Vuren (E Caffini 41), M Bortolami (capt); F Ferrarini (F Cristiano 64), M Bergamasco (A Manici 78), J Sole.
Leinster – I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, A Goodman (A Conway 70), F Carr; J Sexton (C Marsh 65), J Cooney (I Boss 55); J McGrath (J O'Connell 65), R Strauss (A Dundon 62), M Bent (J Hagan 41); T Denton (Q Roux 64), D Toner; K McLaughlin, D Ryan, R Ruddock (S Jennings 64).
Ref – N Paterson (SRU)