Wednesday 17 October 2018

'He bossed the game. Loving it' - Captain Jonathan Sexton calmly steers his shipmates home

Sexton celebrating scoring his side’s third try with Jamison Gibson-Park Photo: Sportsfile
Sexton celebrating scoring his side’s third try with Jamison Gibson-Park Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even after the final whistle, with all five points in the bag, with a maximum haul of ten points from two games, with a personal tally of 17 points from hand and foot, even after all these goodies burrowed beneath his oxter, Jonathan Sexton still has to win one final point.

Benched for the last 12 minutes - Leinster probably wished he had been removed before then but his quarrelsome form delayed Ross Byrne's entry - Sexton was captured in animated discussion with an assistant referee as the field slowly evacuated.

The captain of this ship was indisputably not going down but that did not prevent him fighting all the same.

Sexton was in marvellously combative mood all afternoon, responding to the captaincy bequeathed by the injured Isa Nacewa (out for six weeks after ankle surgery) in characteristically raucous fashion, a simmering cocktail of frantic fury and sublime skill.

And a passing word for all who would listen; few dared not to.

Even referee Jerome Garces got more than his share of the dialogue that is officially allocated to the captain/referee relationship; at one stage, Sexton politely but firmly attempted to appraise Monsieur Garces of the updated laws of the game.

Sexton, indeed, was magistrate of all he surveyed.

A fairly harmless occasion turned decisively on the Ireland and Lions star's influence. Were he to choose the precise moment to command his side's superior strength to attack their opponents' obvious weakness, the captain knew he could steer his ship into much calmer waters.

When he did so once in the first half - spurning a penalty and kicking to the corner for his forwards to rumble Cian Healy over - the tactic proved so successful that he repeated it on the stroke of half-time.

On both occasions, his judgement was roundly vindicated by his pack; on both occasions, he steered the touchline conversion, one from either side, through the sticks.

Johnny Sexton pulls the strings for Leinster at Scotstoun on Saturday Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton pulls the strings for Leinster at Scotstoun on Saturday Photo: Sportsfile

"Key moments in the game," nods Leo Cullen. "Our forwards laid the platform for us and then we are more in control of the game and can play the game in the right areas of the field as a result of those tries."

Sexton surveys all. "He bossed the game," offers Cullen. "Loving it."

It is the spectator's conceit that it often appears as if Sexton plays his game on a solitary diet of anarchic anger; that does his brain and skills a massive disservice.

There is an edge, obviously, although it seems to always have more of an effect on the spectator or opponents, rather than the performer himself.

And so it is that an early wrestling entanglement with Leonardo Sarto, after the latter's late, high hit, lingers into a running feud; thenceforth the crowd pelt Sexton with pantomimic boos.

The Dubliner carries on as if penning his own script. The grace of his running is matched by his graphic ferocity; he made more tackles than anyone else on the team.

As his great predecessor, Brian O'Driscoll, liked to advertise the art of captaincy, 'Do as I do, not as I say.'

It was as if he were personally insulted by the fact his dead leg had ruled him out of last Saturday's bonus-point win against Montpellier.

"Because of that, he's had that extra bit of focus on Glasgow and he's leading the group really well at the moment," Cullen said afterwards with only several shovelfuls of understatement.

"He's been fantastic since he has come back in. He's driving the group in a really positive way. He wants to be successful. He demands high standards of everyone. Even the officials at times as well..."

Sexton even railed magnificently against Glasgow's temporary theft of the famed Leinster 'loop' which had earned them a wonderful first-half advantage thanks to the genius of Sexton's summer colleague, Stuart Hogg, who was making his seasonal debut.

By the end of the short day, normal service had been resumed; Sexton effecting the wraparound with Tadhg Furlong when the tighthead prop's deft skill should have created a try were it not for obstruction before a try was scored when Scott Fardy's even subtler touch allowed Sexton himself to dot down.

The captain was not without his flaws; he missed one terrible attempted tackle - too high, wouldn't you know! - on Sam Johnson; his response was to chase the centre down as if he had just mugged an old lady on the street. Needless to say, the mugger was apprehended.

Sexton's pins started to wobble but, as did Leinster, he resisted attempts to replace him; Ross Byrne took his top off and then put it on again as the minutes ticked by. The captain had to wait until he was sufficiently relaxed about veering his ship away from potentially angry waters before retiring.

He did so, reluctantly, when slotting over the penalty that made the game safe, 27-18, in the 68th minute. The gravy followed.

Sexton's courage once more inspired so many team-mates to be even better than they already are.

"It's a credit to him how brave he is," notes Rhys Ruddock. "He could get hit once or twice on the edge just as he releases the ball but it won't stop him playing to the line, playing the right option.

"He'll still go and do that, still threaten. That's bravery.

"Even Scott's bit of skill to inter-play with Johnny, for a forward to have the ability to play that flat to the line, it's hard to defend, he took in two defenders and left a big space for Johnny.

"I don't know if I have that ability! For the guys who do it poses a real threat."

And, to those who wonder does Sexton derive any personal joy from the joy he delivers to all, just watch him celebrate his try. A million-dollar smile.

Irish Independent

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