Monday 18 December 2017

Sexton overcomes brutal hit to steer Blues into familiar territory

Garry Ringrose and Johnny Sexton chat after last night's victory for Leinster Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose and Johnny Sexton chat after last night's victory for Leinster Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Johnny Sexton stepped onto the pitch knowing what was inevitably coming his way.

He also probably knew what was coming when Frans Steyn lined him up and recklessly hit him high but he was helpless to do anything about it, such was the cheap nature of the South African out-half's hit.

Sexton's class means that he takes to every pitch nowadays knowing that he is going to be targeted by the opposition but justice was served last night when Steyn rightly walked after 27 minutes.

Discipline doesn't seemingly rank high at Montpellier as they had a player sent off for the third consecutive round of this season's Champions Cup and it was no surprise to see who the player they targeted was.

Tensions had been quietly simmering between the pair as Sexton had already put in two good tackles on Steyn in a two-minute spell around the 10-minute mark. Steyn, however, overstepped the mark in seeking retribution.

The Springbok's high, not to mention late, tackle left Sexton in a heap on the turf and when he didn't move for the first few seconds, the crowd gasped a collective sigh of concern.

Attention

Sexton required medical attention for a couple of minutes before he left the pitch. As the Ireland out-half gingerly got to his feet, he cast an eye on the big screen where replays showed Steyn's poor hit.

He shook his sore head as he headed for a HIA and with Leinster 17-3 to the good as well as having a man extra, the majority thought Sexton's night was over.

The 31-year-old is no stranger to undergoing a HIA and more times than not, given his history with head injuries, he has remained off the pitch, but this time he returned after four minutes, to the biggest cheer of the night.

Whether or not four minutes was enough to decipher if Sexton was fit enough to return will again be questioned, especially considering it is only two years since he was stood down for three months due to concussion concerns.

Nevertheless, Sexton came back on and pulled the strings, showing no ill-effects as he helped to ensure that Leinster got the win to seal their quarter-final place.

Before Sexton had been taken out, he looked back to his brilliant best as he marshalled his troops expertly and marched the big Montpellier pack around the park.

Confidence was flowing and from the off he played as if he had a point to prove. Last week's armchair ride against Zebre didn't tell us much, apart from actually getting 56 minutes under his belt after seven weeks out and the game time looked to have benefited Sexton.

He set the tempo inside the opening minute when he made a half-break and when he tapped a penalty inside his own 22 a minute later, Montpellier were scratching their heads at the unpredictability of it all.

Vincent Martin's big, but fair hit after 13 minutes floored Sexton as he got his first taste of the physicality of European rugby once again.

Prior to last night, he had played just 40 minutes in the reverse fixture in France but that quickly became a distant memory.

Sexton forced Steyn to throw a forward pass after Joe Tomane was clean through a gap. The South African was frustrated but he channelled that aggression in a totally negative manner that ultimately ended his side's hopes of overtaking Leinster at the top of the pool.

Leinster were purring and so too was Sexton whose brilliance set them on their way to victory.

Luke McGrath ripped a pass to his No 10 inside Montpellier's 22 and with a couple of men out side of him, Sexton delayed for a fraction of a second before floating an exquisite pass for Isa Nacewa to maintain his incredible record of having scored a try in every round of this season's competition.

It was a microcosm of what Sexton is all about. It looked simple but it was anything but, especially with the Montpellier defenders rushing off their line in anticipation of making the big hit.

Time appeared to stand still and when it did, Sexton assessed his options before teeing up Nacewa to score a brilliantly-worked try.

Sexton bisected the posts with the conversion to score his first points of the competition after five rounds and he doubled his tally when he added the extras after Jack Conan's first of three tries.

Even when Sexton left the field for that four-minute HIA, Leinster were cruising and Leo Cullen understandably called him ashore after 56 minutes, but not before he had added a third conversion.

Cullen was asked last week if Sexton had come back more robust after his time out. His response was simple: "Time will tell." It is of course still early days, but the signs are good as the Six Nations ticks ever closer.

Irish Independent

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