Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sexton can boost Blues in hunt for vital bonus

David Kelly

David Kelly

IT remains the rugby competition that, to paraphrase the old Heineken slogan, refreshes the parts of rugby its peers just cannot possibly reach.

In Ireland, that remains as true as ever, regardless of some understandably dreary omens ahead of the 16th season of high-octane, cosmopolitan rugby action.

Even if the IRFU threatened to eject many, many more of their newest recruits thanks to their ridiculously conceived -- and thankfully reversed -- international ticketing policy in the restrictive capacity of their new home, the Heineken Cup remains the competition for the common man.

Leinster's ascent to champion status two seasons ago may be retreating hurriedly in the rear-view mirror, but the memories of GAA, soccer and rugby folk coalescing, whether from northside to southside, Bunclody to Boyne, still pierce one's reminiscences.

And, as if to demonstrate the competition's constant ability to evolve and renew, today it welcomes the 56th team, Racing Metro 92, to the party -- Toulon will immediately follow in Munster's group and become the 57th.

One of the most storied names of rugby's sepia-tinted amateur days, Racing Metro embodied amateurism in their commitment to fun, sporting bow-ties and quaffing half-time champagne -- even while winning the last of their five French championships.

Today, they personify professionalism, parading one of the most expensive players in world rugby, €1m man Sebastien Chabal, thanks to their real estate billionaire sugar daddy Jacky Lorenzetti.

Chabal knows the personal cost of arriving in this country with an unsustainably lofty reputation, as a bruised backside received from Paul O'Connell et al in Thomond Park four years ago will remind him.

Racing arrive in Dublin with similar pretensions, as their status at the head of Top 14 affairs may indicate but, like Pool 2 rivals Clermont before them, their oft-stated ambitions to triumph on domestic soil may preclude a sustained assault on two fronts.

Clermont historically found such a task impossible; now that they have been liberated from their seemingly eternal quest for the Holy Grail of French rugby, they seem set fair to turn their guns on Europe with greater valour than ever before.

Hence the two internecine encounters between the French could tilt the balance of power in this group; so subtle is the fascinating race for quarter-final qualification, the mere detail that Racing entertain Clermont first (next weekend), could become a significant determining factor.

For Leinster, the task is, as ever, a simple one, beginning with indestructibility at home. History does record that they can emerge after coughing up an opening-round defeat at the RDS -- but not when they are sharing company with two crack French outfits and an English powerhouse.

Propelled

Unlike last season, there will be no Scarlets available to blanche cheeks rouged with embarrassment. And this pool will all but certainly only provide one qualifier.

Hence, last week's belated return to form for Joe Schmidt's side could not have arrived at a more opportune time. Because, in a group where the stress stakes may rise with every passing round, applying as much relentless pressure on the opposition from the off can ease subsequent burdens.

The return of Jonathan Sexton, pointedly dovetailing with Eoin Reddan, can ensure Leinster maintain the spark that propelled them forward so promisingly in the final quarter last week -- all of which had been predicated upon a barnstorming performance from the pack and some sparkling individual skill from Brian O'Driscoll.

Sexton's return is vital; such nonsense that has been spouted about needing "games under the belt" to reach optimum performance was spun on its head by the mercurial out-half.

It took him only three minutes to hit his straps, making you wonder why on earth it took so many of his doleful team-mates so long to wake up to the fact that the season kicked off a month earlier.

That said, Leinster will probably need to up their performance another notch from last weekend's local affray; the visitors may have left a couple of their jewels at home but the rough diamonds up front will be content to scrummage and maul all afternoon if allowed.

As ever, the key to this battle will be fought in the trenches and the struggle between the respective talismen, Jamie Heaslip and Chabal, may offer a reasonable gauge as to who earns the right to the upper hand in the forward exchanges.

Leinster's tight play improved considerably last week and, despite repeated questions from Munster, their line-out was mostly secure (save two losses), although forwards coach Jono Gibbes may this week have sought to address the issue whereby his side repeatedly reduced the head count at the breakdown.

Close to the line, this policy may bear fruit, as seen when Leinster created the space for O'Driscoll's try against Munster, but they allowed several opportunities to retain possession slip by as a result of failing to secure their own ball for extended periods.

If Leinster keep the ball, they can keep their foot on the opponents' throat. Any invitation for Racing to feel that there is more than a losing bonus point on offer could be fatal.

"What they possess is the ability to play a long-kicking game, play territory and they have a big pack to try and squeeze our platform," says Gibbes. "I think they will try to put us under a bit of heat up front and disrupt our platform."

Racing's hopes have been dashed somewhat by the absence of both their leading out-half options: Francois Steyn is moved to full-back where his raking kicks can punish Leinster inaccuracy, while Jonathan Wisniewski is marked absent.

Scrum-half Jerome Fillol fills in at pivot, so expect Nicolas Durand to adopt a brooding Jean-Baptiste Elissalde-like omnipresence.

Galvanise

Shane Jennings' return for Leinster will galvanise the pack, who need to demonstrate that they can vocally and physically compensate for the continued absence of the unrisked Leo Cullen.

If Racing remain interested -- and they have brought a decent bench, too -- it promises to be combustible. Albert VuliVuli's first launch at the Leinster midfield and Chabal's tussle with Heaslip will be worth the admission price alone.

Four points is a must; totting up five would be a superb bonus but allowing Racing one would be indiscreet. The French have excuses. Leinster have none.

Verdict: Leinster.

Leinster -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H Van Der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross, N Hines, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, S Shawe, M Galarza, D Ryan, I Boss, F McFadden, S Horgan.

Racing Metro 92 -- F Steyn; S Bobo, A VuliVuli, A Masi, J Saubade; J Fillol, N Durand; A Lo Cicero, B Noirot, J Orlandi, L Nallet (capt), J Nailiko, J Leo'o, J Cronje, S Chabal. Reps: C Festuccia, S Zimmermann, J Brugnaut, S Dellape, M Loree, M Bergamasco, R Vaquiin, A Batut.

REF -- D Pearson (England).

Leinster v Racing Metro,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Irish Independent

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