Sunday 26 January 2020

Leinster boss Leo Cullen hits out at illegal targeting of talisman Johnny Sexton

Jonathan Sexton of Leinster appeals to referee Jérome Garcès
Jonathan Sexton of Leinster appeals to referee Jérome Garcès

Des Berry

Leo Cullen was eager to let everyone know that the targeting of Jonathan Sexton is not a thing of the past.

The Ireland out-half is not immune to borderline hits at international level.

And Saracens took the view that they were willing to test the patience of referee Jerome Garces in what was close to test match intensity 

There were a number of tight calls in the first half, in which the Leinster coach and Sexton felt the attention paid was unnecessarily late.

It was most obvious in scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth's high hit, which was seen by referee Garces and seen-to by three points from the out-half in the 27th minute.

"It was tough on Johnny because he had been played off ball a few times in the first half.

"It's hard for him not to get frustrated," said Cullen.

"There were three or four incidents when he got hit, played late off the ball.

"I think it is important to take those things in the context of the game."

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The passion of Sexton can lead the tigerish competitor into confrontation with referees and players.

There was more than one example where he felt the heat of illegal late challenges, second rows George Kruis and Maro Itoje taking liberties. 

It worked in the sense that Sexton lost his discipline in kicking the ball away for Marcelo Bosch to narrow a four-point lead to one from halfway in the 35th minute.

Leinster still had the composure to assess the situation at the break and put in their best quarter of the season with tries from Dan Leavy and James Lowe. 

"There is still lots of things in the performance we can get better at, that is one of the exciting things," assessed Cullen.

"That's one of the first things, as coaches, we will try and focus on.

"With the players it is just about trying to manage the group. Some of them are coming off a long season."

Now, Leinster are in the hunt for two trophies and they mean to be greedy about it. 

"It keeps everyone going, and fully motivated," he added. "We will probably chop and change the team over the next couple of weeks with Zebre and Treviso, just making sure we are staying competitive because there are other guys that missed out that would love to be out there.

"Making sure the group stays competitive, that is important."

There is also the cost of injury, scrum-half Luke McGrath (ankle) looking more a concern than Sexton (dead leg) or Fergus McFadden (neck). 

There was also the weekly uncertainty over exactly when Sean O'Brien would be back in the frame.

Mark McCall suggested Leinster have used Ireland's Grand Slam to drive them into the European Cup semi-finals. 

"It's probably going to have some sort of effect you'd have thought," he said.

"We had the luxury of our players coming back the last two seasons having won a Grand Slam and having won the championship and coming back into European quarter-finals and being in great form, physically and emotionally.

"I'm sure Leinster benefitted from that as well."

It remains to be seen whether Leinster can shine a light on Saracens' achievement by paying them the compliment of going on to win their fourth European crown.

"It's a difficult competition, hard enough to get out of your pool to be honest," added McCall.

"For us to have won in two years in a row and go unbeaten for a lot of games, 18 games or something, that's something we should be proud of and rightly so.

"But you want to forget about the past and move on with the present."

The Ulster man was unwilling to pitch Leinster as champions-in-waiting with Munster, Scarlets and Racing having something to say about it.

"I think in terms of the level that was played at, we've all suggested that it was something a little more than what we've had this season.

"You never want to make predictions," said McCall.

"But, I thought they were full of quality and they backed up what they did in the pool stages, so a very, very good team."

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