'Toulon's strategy was clear - Get Johnny Sexton and you'll stop Leinster'
Published 15/12/2015 | 02:30
It took Toulon's expensively assembled backline just seven minutes of Sunday's game before they got the chance to play with ball in hand.
Off clean lineout ball, Eric Escande threw a long, flat pass at Ma'a Nonu who was already making a beeline for Johnny Sexton. The Ireland out-half took the tackle in his customary upright style and conceded yardage before bringing the brilliant All Black to ground.
Sexton got up gingerly and made his way out into the wide channels, but two phases later Toulon found him again. As he swept across the back-field, Drew Mitchell eyes were already searching for the opposition No10 and when he saw him he increased his pace into the collision which Sexton got all wrong and hurtled backwards before Rhys Ruddock scrambled across.
Toulon's strategy was clear. Get Sexton and you'll stop Leinster.
Unlike the World Cup pool match against France, the Dubliner played on and showed no ill-effects of the successive collisions.
Only he knows if those early tackles rattled him mentally, however, as his performance levels plummeted just when the Blues needed him to step up and lead them to a famous victory.
Certainly the out-half's display had not been perfect before the two big hits, with his first kick going directly into touch, but his performance got progressively worse as the day went on as he made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes.
The sight of the 30-year-old out-half struggling is deeply worrying for everyone in Irish rugby.
Read more here:
- 'Completely out of touch, he symbolises the impotence of Leinster' – French media savages Johnny Sexton
- Patience and perseverance needed now - not panic
You only have to look at the eruption of angst towards Ian Keatley in Munster to see how shallow the resources are at No10 these days.
It's only 10 months since the Munster fly-half led the Ireland backline in the Six Nations opener against Italy, but now his confidence has been sapped and some of his own fans have turned on him.
Ian Madigan, second in line at the recent World Cup, was trusted with three minutes of action as Leinster's ship sank in Toulon and, at that, it was in the centre.
At least Paddy Jackson showed signs that he is returning to form on Friday night, while JJ Hanrahan started Northampton Saints' heavy defeat to Dan Carter's Racing 92 on Saturday and will only benefit from his run of games.
A fit Sexton remains head and shoulders above his rivals in the Ireland pecking order, while it became abundantly clear that he is Leinster's franchise player on Sunday as Leo Cullen stuck with him for 80 minutes.
Psychoanalysing players from the stand is a dangerous game and there could be all sorts of reasons that the 30-year-old is struggling for form.
Sexton has conceded that the way the World Cup unfolded has hurt him deeply, but last week said he had moved on from the disappointment.
During pre-season, his focus was solely on Ireland and since his return to Leinster he has been plagued with niggling injuries. When he played well against Ulster two weeks ago, he limped off with a back injury while a chest infection also affected his time on the pitch.
He was always going to build up last Sunday's game too. Not only was his team's European season on the line, local media were bound to compare his return to France with the performance of his replacement Carter, who made his Racing debut on Sunday in style.
Yesterday's l'Equipe slated his display, saying: "Sexton, the idol of Ireland, who returned home, yesterday played as he often did during his time at Racing 92: transparent, making multiple poor decisions. Visibly, completely out of touch, he symbolises the impotence of his club."
That might seem harsh, but from his first kick to touch Sexton struggled to get to grips with the angles at the Stade Felix Mayol while his passing was erratic.
Even when he did connect with his intended recipient, the ball often went to the player's inside shoulder which forced the player to check their run and lose momentum. Sexton is one of the best passers in the game and it was shocking to see so many balls go astray.
Famously, Sexton drives standards throughout the team and doesn't tolerate errors, but if he isn't playing well he is in no position to bark orders at those around him when they are not performing to the accepted level.
Instead, he appears to beat himself up and, while so often he has been able to turn his performances around during matches when things have gone against him, he has been unable to do so this season.
When, in the summer of 2014, he agreed to return home after the World Cup, Sexton could never have envisaged that the autumn of 2015 would turn out this badly.
One of the most creative out-halves in the game, he has presided over three European games with a return of just one try and that attacking impotence has contributed hugely to Leinster's early exit from Europe.
Over Christmas, the IRFU's player management will kick in for the World Cup contingent but Joe Schmidt will be aware that Leinster only have seven games before the Six Nations kicks off and three of them are now meaningless.
The danger in trying to play him into form is that his confidence looks brittle, while the risk of injury remains as Toulon will send Mathieu Bastareaud and friends down his channel all day next Saturday.
Cullen, however, has nailed his colours to the Sexton mast and in doing so sent a clear message to Madigan as he contemplates his future.
While his club form for Racing never hit the heights of his international endeavours with Ireland, the expectation was that he would fit back into life at Leinster as if he'd never been away.
A lot happened in those last two years. He changed, the club he left changed and they need to find an equilibrium quickly so that they can move forward together.
Already, he is Leinster's most important player and he has been Ireland's key man for some time now. Both teams need him to find form quickly. If he can lift his level of performance, then those around him will respond.