Sunday 15 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Johnny Sexton's show of strength defines warrior champions'

Johnny Sexton was all smiles as he walks around the Lansdowne Road pitch after yesterday’s victory over Toulouse. Photo: Getty
Johnny Sexton was all smiles as he walks around the Lansdowne Road pitch after yesterday’s victory over Toulouse. Photo: Getty
David Kelly

David Kelly

Leinster were on a war footing before Toulouse had even loaded their ammunition. As the teams merged in the tunnel, Leinster's players, almost as one, unloaded a feral outburst of pugnacious whooping and hollering, a battle cry decreeing that this was their home, this was to be their day.

A champions' clarion call. Toulouse essayed a vocal response, but it seemed feeble and disjointed; a portent of the day to come.

Leinster's captain, Jonathan Sexton, was as furiously pumped as any of his colleagues for the challenge that awaited all.

At the coin toss, he had arrived prematurely, 30 seconds before his opposite number Jerome Kaino, and so he circled the dais, fidgeting with the impatience of a man who had not yet this calendar year played in provincial colours.

Too much time to make up. Too many disappointments in another team's garb waiting to be discarded from his overactive mind.

He wins the toss but asks to receive the kick-off, rather than deliver it; his first, uncertain carry will result in a real statement of intent from initially, and deceptively, dazzling opponents.

But from thereon, aside from a kick to touch on the full - right decision, wrong execution, and a missed penalty kick which was of ultimately little consequence - captain and team dominate the day as only true warriors can.

Forlorn

When he departs, the stained image of so many distracted moments during a fitful Six Nations campaign are swept aside.

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His final act is to deliver the death knell to Toulouse's forlorn hopes of engaging fully in the contest, a 66th-minute penalty extending his side's lead to 27-12, a two-score and more advantage.

He races towards his goal-line, as if hoping the hook is not being applied, but Ross Byrne's arrival confirms his departure.

Unlike in Rome, for example, when his distaste at his and his team's ineffectual display was writ large in his actions and his words, he takes his leave with a cheery grin and a fist-pump.

Restored and revitalised, along with so many of his freshened, in-form colleagues rehabilitated from spring despair: Robbie Henshaw, Sean O'Brien, Devin Toner.

Now ready for one final push in the quest for an unprecedented assault on retaining the two titles that propelled them to the summit of their ambition last season.

Leinster's excellence pervades their collective, from the front-row to the back three and all points in between, but it is their control in the half-backs which provides such certainty.

Toulouse, in stark contrast, wait an hour until finally installing the necessary solidity of an orthodox half-back pairing, but it is too little, too late. Sexton, in this form, in this mood, would arguably have dominated any combination Toulouse might have been able to muster; he renews battle now with his old foe and older friend, Owen Farrell.

A suitable bookend to a portion of 2019 which began with humiliation here against a marauding English, the day Sexton - and Ireland - began their worrying decline in form.

Now he and Leinster can strike a definitive blow to indicate that Irish rugby, in this World Cup year, still resounds with purposeful life.

For now, Sexton is a man in a hurry.

"A mixed bag," he says of himself and Leinster; for sure, there are more gears to come. There will need to be.

"There's always more to come, isn't there? It certainly wasn't perfect at times. During the week I felt like I was cramming for a big exam.

"I was trying to fit everything in. I was at times trying to do a little too much. You'd think you'd learn with experience not to do that.

"But in such a big game when you haven't been on the pitch for a few weeks... it's different when you don't have that week-in, week-out match fitness.

"It's tough and it weighs heavily on you. But it's better to be fully fit and to be undercooked than to be playing every week and carrying injuries and niggles.

"It's good to get the body right and hopefully I can stay fit for the rest of the season and the rest of 2019, please God."

We ask Leo Cullen to assess his captain's contribution, on and off the field.

"Perhaps it might be better if I leave?" smiles Sexton.

"Ha!" retorts Cullen. "Johnny has to leave..."

There is so much of the coach in the captain; both are prodigal sons, whose returns to the province after brief sabbaticals required them to rehabilitate the very sense and soul of what was required to form greatness in themselves and their team.

"It's great to have Johnny back in the team, we haven't had him since the end of December," adds the former captain, who lifted this trophy three times before becoming the first in European club history last season to claim it as both captain and coach.

"Behind the scenes Johnny is always working hard to drive standards in the group and that's an amazing quality that he has; there's never an end point to it.

"Even if there's things we think we can do well, he'll find other things we can get better at. That's what we need as a group.

Loaded

"We know we have to be very, very good because at this stage of the competition all the teams are heavily loaded, heavily resourced and everyone is gearing up to trying to win on the big days, to play well on the big days.

"The standard Johnny sets for himself is exceptional and I think it rubs off on everyone else."

The bar always rises; such was the gulf in class that existed in the weekend's semi-finals that neither Farrell nor his team needed to extract the maximum from their greatness to prevail, either.

This will not be a final dripping in romance; it is more like an historical epic.

Two gladiators will form its pulse, for each man and each team it's their biggest battle simply because it is their next.

"It's going to be a huge game," Sexton says.

"He (Owen) had a great game on Saturday. Their halves controlled the game really well and we'll have to be ready for all the combinations they have."

Sexton will be ready, too.

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