Tuesday 24 April 2018

Sexton quick to praise kindred spirit Donald

David Kelly

David Kelly

Leinster's Heineken Cup champions go to Bath this week with a host of European medals jangling in their back pockets.

But one man amongst the opposition will be in possession of a medal that Leinster's Ireland contingent crave even more.

Bath's wild-card signing, Stephen Donald, was the unlikely hero for the All Blacks in October's World Cup final, winging in from a fishing sojourn to nail the conclusive penalty in the final against France.

Jonathan Sexton -- his direct opponent in Saturday's crunch clash at the 'Rec' -- was already at home at that stage, licking his wounds after a difficult campaign for him personally.

But he could only admire the chutzpah of the forgotten New Zealander's impromptu calmness as he slotted over a kick that ensured deliverance as the All Blacks captured the William Webb Ellis trophy for the first time since their triumph in the inaugural 1987 staging.

"It was obviously a big pressure kick just after coming off the bench," says Sexton of the player who emerged from nowhere to become national hero in the blinking of an eye.

"It must have been tough because he was probably cold and it was one of the first things he had to do. He showed great bottle because he obviously got a lot of stick in the press over there for the last couple of years. So to respond like that, I'm sure he was absolutely delighted."

Little surprise, then, that Donald replicated the giddy celebration that accompanied Sexton's own crucial interventions during Leinster's two recent Heineken Cup final successes.

"As you would," smiles Sexton. "He answered a lot of critics, which is great for him and I'm sure everyone was delighted for him."

Donald immediately made an impression with his new Bath team-mates, too, setting up two tries and converting a late penalty winner in their round-two success against Montpellier, leaving French out-half Francois Trinh-Duc aghast once more.

"Yeah, he's a good player," is Sexton's summation. "He obviously hasn't played too much for Bath so we haven't got too much footage of him there. But he's quite a big guy and likes to go to the line a lot.

"I'm sure he'll test me out defensively so I've got to be ready for that. He's a good passer of the ball and a good kicker. He's a really good threat for them so we'll have to watch out for him."

Leinster's sparkling form domestically and on the European stage -- they top the respective tables in each competition -- has enabled Sexton to shrug off the diffident form that pockmarked his World Cup experiences.

"Yeah, I learned a lot, definitely," he admits. "I learned a lot of lessons and you take those forward with you. It's all about the experience you build up, I suppose. I probably don't want too many more negative experiences like that, but definitely you learn from them."

Laughing off the comparisons between himself and persistent rival Ronan O'Gara, who has stolen the limelight in this season's Heineken Cup with successive last-minute drop-goals, Sexton plays down the need to embellish his form with lavish heroics.

"No," he says indifferently. "Hopefully we'll have it won before that. I don't know how to answer that really."

The collective excellence of Leinster has ensured that any individual need for excellence is superfluous.

"Yeah, it's really good at the moment," he continues. "Joe (Schmidt) is putting out different teams every week and all the guys are putting their hand up for selection, which is exactly what you want.

"In a squad environment you want 30 lads all going hard for a position so it's a good place to be at the moment, but we're fully aware that the game on Friday against Cardiff was against a weakened side.


"Bath will be a different task altogether. It's going to be a tough game -- away from home in the Heineken Cup. They rested seven or eight of their front-liners against Sale so they're obviously targeting this weekend."

Aside from his rivalry with O'Gara for the green shirt of Ireland, the belated emergence of Ian Madigan, while not yet perhaps a serious rival for Sexton's starting berth, has at least engendered an extra bulwark against complacency.

"It's great," he says. "Obviously all the provinces want home-grown players coming through and Ian is doing really well. He played well last weekend and the weekend before.

"He obviously had a difficult start at the start of the season when the senior players were away and that's tough, but he's getting better all the time. With Ian McKinley retiring with injury, it's great that we've got him coming up. There'll be great competition when Matt Berquist gets back from his injury as well. There will be three of us going for one spot, which is definitely what Joe wants."

Leinster are expected to accrue two successive wins against the Premiership strugglers, but the added pressure of being champions means that Leinster are wary of the heightened desire others have to scalp them.

"Everyone said that getting a draw away in Montpellier was a good result, but it means that if we lose another game the prospect of a home quarter-final is gone and you'd also be under pressure to qualify from the pool.

"In many ways it's a must-win game for us this weekend. If we win we're in control of the pool. If we lose then we need other results to go our way."

Irish Independent

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