Monday 24 July 2017

Sexton steps up to plate in Irish audition

Jonathan Sexton raises his fist after going over for Leinster's late try
Jonathan Sexton raises his fist after going over for Leinster's late try

Hugh Farrelly

ON the night Lady Gaga was wowing the O2, the piped music across town at the RDS was suitably contemporary and upbeat, but 'London Calling' would have been the most appropriate tune given next weekend's Twickenham tilt.

Leinster copper-fastened their top-four status in the Magners League table (with a game in hand) following Saturday night's rusty, if comprehensive, win over the Scarlets.

But, while that fact will justifiably afford coach Michael Cheika a fair degree of satisfaction (tempered by the fractured leg suffered by Sean O'Brien), the imperatives of getting the Irish rugby team back on track against England next weekend meant the primary interest was in the individual auditions as a clutch of Leinstermen bid to turn blue to green.

Chief among them was out-half Jonathan Sexton, whose man-of-the-match, 22-point display was a powerful statement ahead of tomorrow's Ireland team announcement.

Ronan O'Gara has borne the brunt of some hysterical overreaction to the defeat in Paris, when he put in a decent display despite having to operate behind a pack that was completely dominated by the French. There has been a widespread call for the Leinster half-backs to replace their Munster counterparts but, given the need for a confidence-restoring victory, there is a strong argument for Kidney sticking with O'Gara's experience and Tomas O'Leary's physicality for the Twickenham test.

Conversely, there is the theory that Sexton running out at the home of English rugby against Jonny Wilkinson and his team-mates is the next natural step in his development alongside O'Gara, as Ireland build towards the World Cup next year. He did his chances no harm with this display, looking like a player completely confident in the mechanics of his game while inside him Eoin Reddan also held his hand up with a lively, assured outing.

O'Brien being carried off on a stretcher after five minutes was an unwelcome sight for all concerned -- although Cheika was pleased with the excellent showing by replacement Stephen Keogh -- and creates a gap in the Ireland 22, with Leinster duo Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings at the head of the queue. Both went well against the Scarlets, notably Jennings who has the edge over McLaughlin in that he provides specialist open-side cover behind Ireland's regular No 7 David Wallace.

Given France's physical superiority in Paris, the other Leinster man being flagged for Ireland's call is winger Shane Horgan, whose size, aggression and strong record at Twickenham make him a contender for inclusion in the back three after the injury to Rob Kearney.

Cheika revealed that Horgan was a doubt going into the match and, though the Meath man had some strong moments, his overall impact was not powerful enough to suggest he will get the nod ahead of Ulster's Andrew Trimble tomorrow.

The longshot for Ireland's back three is veteran full-back Girvan Dempsey, a player who has been denied the Leinster starts he craves this season through a combination of Cheika's strength in depth and cancellations.

Dempsey was superb on Saturday evening, fielding everything that came his way while chasing and tackling superbly. Though picking Dempsey would not tie in with the stated policy of World Cup development, the must-win nature of next weekend's clash provides an argument in favour of the 34-year-old's proven credentials and security at the back.

There has been plenty of speculation about the tight-head position after John Hayes' travails in Paris, but Mike Ross has not had enough starts this season to make a convincing case.

On Saturday, CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright were Leinster's starting props and Ross just had 20-odd minutes to make his case.

He put in a powerful shift at the scrum but needs more than cameos to further international ambitions.

The Scarlets must be sick of the sight of Leinster following their Heineken Cup humiliations in December and Nigel Davies and his men will be grateful they do not have to face the province again -- barring an unlikely Scarlets surge to the Magners League play-offs.

Leinster won comfortably without ever hitting top gear and, though Scarlets led on two occasions through the kicking of out-half Rhys Priestland and a superbly worked try by hooker Ken Owens, the home side always looked the superior outfit.

It was 3-3 with 19 minutes gone when Scarlets wing Andrew Tenby sparked the move that led to Owens' score, breaking Horgan's tackle and cutting infield before good hands put the hooker over in the left-hand corner.

It was a score that will exercise the analysis skills of defence coach Kurt McQuilkin, but Leinster's first try 10 minutes later was well conceived also, Horgan making the crucial incursion to create the space for Isa Nacewa to cross in the corner.


Sexton and Priestland continued to swap penalties and Leinster went in 13-11 ahead after an entertaining, if disjointed, opening period. Though Priestland pushed Scarlets into the lead on the resumption, the Leinster pack -- Keogh and Jennings to the fore -- began to gain control with Reddan and Sexton reaping the rewards.

The out-half continued to bang over the penalties and, with 10 minutes to go, Leinster were 22-14 ahead, helped by Scarlets flanker Rob McCusker fumbling embarrassingly with the line at his mercy after he had done well to block down Shaun Berne's clearance kick.

Leinster finished with a flourish when substitute Andrew Conway (the highly rated Ireland U-20 player making his Magners League debut) was put away down the right-hand touchline by Berne and nearly made it over himself before off-loading to Sexton who crashed over.

It was a fitting end for the game's dominant personality, although Sexton's missed conversion spoiled a seven-from-seven place-kicking return. Overall, though there are areas to look at (primarily several missed first-up tackles), this was a satisfying evening for Cheika and Leinster and a worthwhile audition for their Twickenham hopefuls.

LEINSTER -- G Dempsey; S Horgan (A Conway 78), F McFadden, S Berne, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright (CJ van der Linde 74), B Jackman (R Strauss 64), CJ van der Linde (M Ross 64); D Toner, M O'Kelly; K McLaughlin, S Jennings (Capt), S O'Brien (S Keogh 5).

SCARLETS -- D Newton; D Evans, R King, J Davies, A Fenby; R Priestland, M Roberts; I Thomas, K Owens, D Manu (J Thomas 18); D Day, D Welch (V Cooper 64); R McCusker, D Lyons (Capt), J Edwards (J Turnbull 50).

REF -- A McPherson (Scotland).

Irish Independent

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