Wednesday 20 February 2019

Sexton hits top gear as Leinster flex muscle


David Kelly

David Kelly

Leinster's imperious march in defence of their European crown continues apace in stunning style.

Who can stop them now? Perhaps the eccentric exigencies of a Heineken Cup format that, by the quirk of a draw, assigned the champions and the quarter-finalists' second seeds into a fiendishly difficult away semi-final.

Leinster, unlike last year's double Dublin dates en route to Cardiff, must now go on the road to maintain their desire to emulate Leicester's achievement a decade ago of back-to-back titles.

"They'll know me pretty well," grinned Joe Schmidt as he contemplates renewing battle with Clermont, with whom he lost to Leinster as assistant coach two seasons ago in the RDS. "Nathan Hines knows me pretty well. He's a super player and he was brilliant for us last year.

"The good thing about going there is the game is in Bordeaux so there's a bit of a distance they've to travel as well as us. It's a pretty foreign field for them.

"Three years ago, we (Clermont) beat Toulouse 19-9 in a semi-final there and I think that's their only experience there.

"The changing-rooms are about 90 seconds to two minutes' walk away. It's a long way. We actually stayed on the pitch at half-time there. With 15-minute half-time breaks, we probably have time to get golf carts for the guys coming into the sheds."

Out-half Brock James, who emerged from the bench early yesterday to unearth a sublime kicking display against Saracens, couldn't hit a barn door when Clermont lost 29-28 in that gripping last-eight clash against Leinster.

"I don't know if it's too much revenge," he said. "They went on last year and won the competition, and got through to the semi-final a couple of years ago.

"It's a new competition, with a new team. We've talked a lot more about the Heineken Cup this year and placed a little bit more importance on it. So it's kind of a fresh season and a fresh competition. Yeah, we're obviously keen to get stuck into them."

For Leinster, the luck of the draw now offers them the most difficult route possible to the final, despite being reigning champions and this season's second seeds in pool qualification.

"Being at home was a massive advantage last year. Maybe if last year's semi-final had been in Toulouse, it may have been a different result. They played well and so did we. The 16th man or 50,000 16th men helped us get over the line," said Schmidt.

"Part of the mystique of the competition is that you earn your quarter-final and anything after that is just a scrap for whatever you can get. I can see some sense in it but I can also see some sense in that it should be merit-based.

"They have talked about a home and away in the semi-final situation and a neutral final venue, or neutral venues for semi-finals. The problem with a neutral venue for a semi-final is that you want to have a home team there. You want to have that real passionate support for one of the teams."

On Saturday's evidence, Leinster could probably play on the moon's dappled surface and still hope to beat all-comers.

Whatever their future in this competition, Leinster have already scaled magnificent heights during their defence of the realm, no more so than in the sublime 47 minutes or so required to fend off a dispirited, disjointed Cardiff.

With Irish players performing with a liberation seemingly denied them when the colour of their jumper is green, Schmidt's helming of this side created some wonderful vistas.

Many of the 50,000 fans who witnessed a marvellous ensemble, if not even the first cousin of a sporting contest, could only wonder as they trundled into the night air just what Schmidt could do if also instructing these Irish backs on international duty.

Warren Gatland would be foolish not to at least seek a little chow time with the amiable Kiwi before next summer's Lions tour; even if the Welsh coach has the temerity to select a predominantly Welsh backline.

Things can change so quickly, though. The scrum was evidence of that. The set-piece, without which no backline in the world can hope to perform, did for the Irish national team in Twickenham when their tight-head was injured.

Here, Cardiff's first-choice tight-head was unavailable, Mike Ross was fully charged and, embellished by some World Cup winning ballast at tight-head lock, Leinster demolished the scrum with alarming alacrity.

"He makes a small bit of an effort," Ross drily noted of 37-year-old Brad Thorn. "When he's behind, you know all about it. He compresses your spine in new and interesting ways."

With go-forward achieved at will, Leinster went forward willingly. Directing the operation with fervour and little of the fretful unease that invites itself into his Irish duty was Jonny Sexton -- remarkably he has played more games for Ireland than Leinster this season.

This was easily the best individual display of the lot. Pick any highlight. The excellent surge and dummy to create the opener for Isa Nacewa. Or the no-look pass that offered Luke Fitzgerald the cutting inside line to set Brian O'Driscoll free.

Notably, when Leinster were in defensive mode thanks to Cardiff's vacuous second-half effort, Sexton visibly berated himself for shooting from the line and missing a tackle.

"I've learned a lot off him," gushed Schmidt. "He pushes himself very hard. He is such a professional. His line-kicking today was unbelievable. He put us in the corner from 50 or 60 metres out that allowed us to have the attacking platforms to put pressure on opponents.


"He's taught me to let him play, he's not that bad a player. Give him his head and he'll call what he'll see. He'll come in and have a chat and build from week to week, but to be honest I haven't seen much of him."

Sadly, the only real carp with Leinster's awesome ruination of this quarter-final as a competitive event was their inability to rule the airwaves from touch, for which the entire line-out collective was at fault. Schmidt, ever the perfectionist, will alight on this.

Still, he was unusually generous to concede, under pressure, the beauty of the third Leinster try, which saw not an opposition hand laid on a home player from Leo Cullen's line-out take to the Irish captain's majestic finish.

"Ask the players and they'll tell you I don't think there's such a thing as a perfect try. They honestly believe I'm a grumpy man. But it was not a bad try. We're happy with that one."

Beauty in the eyes of the holders.

Leinster -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (I Madigan 69), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden 60); J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 62); C Healy (H van der Merwe 69), R Strauss (S Cronin 53), M Ross (N White 73), L Cullen (capt), B Thorn (D Toner 60), K McLaughlin (S Jennings 50), J Heaslip, S O'Brien.

Cardiff -- L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, C Laulala, D Hewitt, T James (y/c 79); D Parks (C Sweeney 69), L Williams (R Rees 69); G Jenkins, M Breeze, S Andrews, B Davies, J Down (M Molitika 61), M Paterson, X Rush (capt), M Williams.

Ref -- D Pearson (England).

Irish Independent

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