Monday 27 January 2020

Sexton out to break mould on French soil

Out-half eyes Clermont revenge after broken jaw sidelined him for 2010 Toulouse defeat

Jonathan Sexton takes a breather during Leinster's training session at the RDS yesterday
Jonathan Sexton takes a breather during Leinster's training session at the RDS yesterday
David Kelly

David Kelly

Jonathan Sexton has become familiarly associated with jaw-dropping performances in recent years.

But when Leinster last meet Clermont in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup two seasons ago, he added jaw-breaking to his extensive repertoire.

There was plenty of speculation as to the identity of the alleged transgressor, but Sexton manfully played on, slotting two late penalties to secure one of the most thrilling quarter-final wins in the history of the competition.

Two years on, Sexton will finally get the opportunity denied him then: to play in a semi-final on French soil as Leinster aim to erase the bitter memories of the defeat to Toulouse that followed.

His injury-enforced absence was just one of the factors contributing to Leinster's only glitch in an unprecedented run of success in this competition, stretching back to their maiden success in 2009.

He wouldn't have been able to bite his lip then, had he tried. Two years on, though, a sour taste in his mouth as acidic as antiseptic remains.

"I have bittersweet memories," he recalled yesterday, as Leinster returned to the scene of that remarkable 29-28 win in the RDS for their first training session of the week.

"I broke my jaw," he remembered, before swiftly correcting himself. "Or I got my jaw broken, I should say. I obviously missed the game after that.

"It was a great occasion and we were delighted to get the win, but I was off to hospital and missed out on the semi-finals. So it's fair to say I have some bittersweet memories from that night."

Pressed to recall the specifics of the, ahem, rather aggressive counter-rucking tactics deployed by the French, Sexton delivers a shimmy that has become a familiar on-field exhibit in recent times.

"I can't remember," he deadpanned with a smile. He does remember the agony of semi-final defeat, though.

"That was tough to take. I had to go over and watch the lads play Toulouse. In fairness they pushed them all the way and it comes down to small margins.

"I remember Eoin Reddan dropped the ball, or the ball being knocked out of his hands just as he was going over the line in the first half.

"It could have been so different if that score had gone in. So we have to take our experiences that we've had over there in the past and try and learn from them.

"We haven't had too many wins over there and that just shows how tough it is to go over to France and get a win."

Like Leinster, Clermont are chasing two hares this season; having already secured a safe passage into their league semi-final, Vern Cotter's side are aiming to celebrate their centenary with a maiden Heineken Cup success.

After creating a Top 14 record with a fourth successive try shutout against Montpellier last Friday night, Clermont's intense defence will arguably pose the most stringent test of the season for this all-conquering Leinster side.

Ever more self-critical, Leinster admit that they have struggled to put in enough consummate 80-minute displays, even if this has predominantly been down to the inadequacies of their opposition.

"We've had some tough games over the last few weeks," said Sexton. "We had Cardiff, Munster and Ulster, so all those games have put us in a good position.

season

"We probably haven't played our best, but we know that this weekend we will have to be at our best and we have to do it for 80 minutes, something that we probably haven't done all season.

"We've had bursts where we've put teams away and then not had the ball but defended well, so we're going to have to be at our best with the ball.

"And then any time they have it we have to be really switched on because they've got some fantastic players, strike runners and athletes, so it's going to be tough."

Just as tough as the temporarily fallen Heineken Cup kings Toulouse, he believes.

"It's pretty similar in terms of their squad. Almost everyone in their squad is an international and a quality player, so no matter who they play or who is injured, they've got someone really good to play. It is like playing Toulouse. It's the same. They are probably the two teams in France who really go out and play, try and throw the ball around and play with a bit of tempo.

"A lot of the other teams, they slog it out and they try and bash each other. But these two, they've got some really good individual players and they try and play, and in fairness to their coaches they give them licence to do that."

Whatever happens this weekend, the Sexton clan have already secured one trophy triumph, following brother Mark's timely try-scoring introduction for St Mary's College in their AIL decider on Saturday.

"I was absolutely delighted for Mark," said Sexton, one of the hundreds of delighted Templeville Road pitch invaders. "He put off an operation to play in these last two games.

"He was in bits on Saturday, his hip is not great but he was just delighted that he played a part. I was delighted for him, the club, Peter Smyth, the coach and everyone up there. Running on the pitch! It was what it would feel like to win next weekend."

Only this time he will be able to tell everyone how he played his part.

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