Tuesday 24 October 2017

Sexton savouring role at heart of Leinster's Euro tilt

David Kelly

David Kelly

Jonathan Sexton leans against the wall of a deserted RDS. A penny for his thoughts? Luckily, we can get them for nothing.

His past informs the present.

During Leinster's 2009 Heineken Cup win, the Irish out-half had spent much of it on the outside of the tent looking on as Leinster clambered hesitantly towards the semi-final.

As Michael Cheika pulled the flaps behind him, Sexton decided about pitching up elsewhere. France. England. Anywhere but unwanted, unloved, here.

He had started the season all a flurry as Felipe Contepomi purred and Isa Nacewa was being squeezed into the out-half berth (imagine!); when Cheika dragged in fans' favourite David Holwell from a farm halfway around the world, Sexton decided to call time.

But something made him pause. Well, someone actually. Declan Kidney included him in a Six Nations squad. Then Sexton played against Scotland 'A' and, a few yards from where he stands now, that game resuscitated his confidence.

Leinster benefited even more. When Contepomi crumbled on the Croke Park turf against Munster in that epic clash, Sexton jaunted on and steered his side home. In the Murrayfield final, he played a veteran's role.

The gusting wind now speeding through the RDS is freighted with those memories. The first time was sweet; the second time may be even sweeter.

"I suppose the last time, I was just really thrown in there," he says. "I'd only really played probably a couple of halves in the pool stages, I was on the bench normally. This year, I've played every game. It would mean more to me this year to win it after playing all the games and feeling more a part of it.

"Two years ago, yeah, Felipe got injured and I played the final. I sort of felt that year it was a case of trying not to let the team down. This year, I suppose it would be a more experienced group of players we have and I've been a part of that.

"I suppose it was a big moment in my career. It could have gone either way, but at the same time I went into the game having nothing to lose from a personal point of view. It was all about doing what was right for the team and getting the win for the first Heineken Cup."

He did that and then some. Sexton nervelessly slotted the winning penalty 10 minutes from time that secured the title 19-16 against Leicester; before that, his audacious drop-goal from almost halfway settled Leinster after a jittery opening quarter.

He'll take the points any which way this Saturday.

"It will be tight," he asserts. "Any points we can take on offer we'll go for it, whether it be drop-goals or penalties, but at the same time we'll be going out to play. That's been our sort of ethos for the whole season, to go out and play our type of game, and attack with the ball.

"We're not going to change it now just because it's a final. That would be criminal I suppose, to go against everything we stand for. That's what Joe stands for, a running game. We'll be playing with the ball when it suits and we'll be kicking it when it needs to be kicked."

Sexton's role is not all that has changed in Leinster; his team have become more balanced from the forward-orientated, defensive combination that served the side so well by finally making their European breakthrough.

The necessity of securing that debut triumph has been the mother of this group's more inventive approach. "We're a different team. We probably didn't play great two years ago if you look at the performances. I supposed we peaked against Munster and we sort of struggled through the final," he says.

"We had a lot of brilliant individual players: Rocky (Elsom), Felipe, guys like that who used to get us out of a hole. This year, I feel we've got a rugby team and we play better at times.

"We need to combine the two this weekend to get the win because Northampton are a quality side. We need to play well and have graft and hunger."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport