Sunday 19 August 2018

Saracens boss insists there was 'no plan' to target Johnny Sexton despite aggressive approach

Owen Farrell, centre, confronts Johnny Sexton during their Champions Cup quarter-final clash at the Aviva. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Owen Farrell, centre, confronts Johnny Sexton during their Champions Cup quarter-final clash at the Aviva. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Johnny Sexton knew what was coming his way before a ball was kicked at the Aviva Stadium, but even as the Leinster out-half was repeatedly targeted by Saracens, he had to ship more than his usual share of late hits.

It comes with the territory of being the key man and it was evident from the early stages that Saracens were going after him.

Sexton exchanged his fair share of verbals with the visitors, in particular his opposite number, Owen Farrell.

He allowed that frustration to boil over on the stroke of half-time when he kicked the ball away from the centre of the pitch before a restart, which resulted in a penalty that Marcelo Bosch kicked to cut the gap to one point.

Sarries boss Mark McCall was gracious in defeat, but he was quick to brush off the suggestion that his side were overly aggressive in their approach.

"There certainly wasn't any plan to do that," the Ulster man insisted.

"We wanted to make him make his decisions early. We wanted him to pass a little bit sooner than he wanted to, to kick a little bit earlier. But apart from that, there was no other plan."

Leinster dominated the collisions and, considering that is an area on which Saracens Champions Cup success for the last two years has been based, it was quite the statement from a side who proved just why they are favourites to replace the English side as Europe's kingpins.

While it is impossible to quantify, it wasn't difficult to conclude that a lot of Leinster's intensity came on the back of Ireland's Grand Slam success.

Dan Leavy and James Ryan, who has now won a staggering 19 out of 19 professional games, picked up where they had left off in the Six Nations, with two more towering displays. Sexton, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong all put in significant shifts too.

"It's probably going to have some sort of effect, you would have thought," McCall acknowledged.

"We have had the luxury of having our players come back from the last two seasons, having won a Grand Slam, and having won a Championship, and coming back into European quarter-finals and being in great form - physically and emotionally. I'm sure Leinster benefited from that as well.

"I think they are outstanding. They were the best team in the pool stages. When we analysed them, there were not many weaknesses.

"They had to defend for a long time and they did it really well. They've got some people on their team who can really hurt you in attack as well, so they are a very good, all-round team. They were just too good for us on the day."

From a player's perspective, Saracens skipper Brad Barritt echoed McCall's sentiments. His side were second best throughout and when they failed to take their chances, a sizeable task was always going to be even greater.

"Yeah, I think that's where we will look back in terms of where Leinster were better on the day," Barritt admitted.

"I think they took their opportunities well, whereas on the flip side, I think we entered their 22 five or six times and to only get three points out of all those opportunities was disappointing.

"Having said that, huge congratulations to Leinster. As a playing group, we felt they were better on the day and were full quality for their victory.

"(They are) A very good team. I think in terms of the level that was played at today, we've all suggested that it was something a little more than what we've had this season.

"You never want to make predictions 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."

Irish Independent

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