Wednesday 25 April 2018

'We are desperate to get back to big Euro games' - Johnny Sexton relishing crack at Saracens

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Only twice in the history of European rugby have Leinster and Saracens crossed paths.

Back in the 2010/'11 season, the English club were in the building stages of what would become their era of dominance but Joe Schmidt's Leinster were the top dogs and won both pool games.

At Wembley, Johnny Sexton was the hero and South African coach Brendan Venter was left bemoaning the Irish province's dark arts at the breakdown. He wouldn't be the only coach to be left befuddled by Schmidt's side's approach in the years to come.

In the years since, Sexton has gone and returned and Leinster have had to watch on in frustration as first Toulon and then Sarries moved into their territory.

They had two shots at Toulon and came up short; first in the 2014 quarter-final and again when they were a Jimmy Gopperth drop-goal attempt away in the semi-final in Marseille a year later.

Although Mark McCall's men have dominated the European scene since, Leinster haven't had a cut at the two-time champions until now.

After the semi-final defeat to Clermont last season, Sexton conceded that he'd love to have had a go at toppling the English side in the final.

Eager

On Sunday, he has his chance as the two teams go head to head in an eagerly anticipated quarter-final in Dublin.

"It would have been good to have had them up after the semi-final, in the final in Lyon. That was a big disappointment that we didn't get to the final last year but I think we learned a lot and we need to take some of the lessons from that game in particular into this week," he said.

"If you want to win the European Cup again you are going to have to beat Saracens at some stage so there is no better time than to get them at home in the quarter-final .

"It is going to be a huge challenge, I don't think they will have any fear based on what they did last year, so yeah it is a going to be a big challenge and it is one that we are up for and we can put our best foot forward. There will be big midweek prep to see if we can get the result that we need."

There are clear parallels between the Grand Slam game two weeks ago and Saturday's meeting at the Aviva Stadium with so many personnel renewing rivalries this weekend.

Sexton understands the comparison, but believes this is a different beast.

"There is and there isn't, yes and no, it is very different," he said.

"Look there is a few left-over players that are playing for Saracens and there is a few playing for us. but I think it is totally different circumstances.

"They are back-to-back champions and we are sort of striving to get back to where we were and become that champion team ourselves.

"We came close last year. We weren't quite good enough. We are hoping to take that experience and put it into our lessons for this week."

After the pressure-cooker nature of the build-up to the win at Twickenham, Sexton is relishing being back in blue after a short break last weekend.

That doesn't mean he is taking this week lightly.

"It was a tough build-up to it," he said of the St Patrick's week lead-in.

"We had the strange situation of knowing we were going to lift the trophy but what you really want isn't the trophy, it's that bit of history, the Grand Slam. So, it was a very strange week.

"This week, the closer the game gets, it's still only Monday and it's a Sunday game, but we are desperate to get back to those big European games and this is one of them, to try and stand out and get to another final.

"There is internal pressure that is driving us, definitely, and this team wants to create its own bit of history, in terms of a lot of the guys who had that success have moved on now and there are only a few of us left and we want to start our own little chapter in Leinster's story."

Saracens have endured something of a dip this season, losing heavily to at home Clermont in the back-to-back games before Christmas but recovering just enough to squeeze into the quarter-finals as the bottom seed.

Despite their struggles, they remain second in the Premiership, well adrift of champions Exeter Chiefs who are runaway leaders. Having already accounted for the top side in the pool, Leinster can end English interest in the competition by beating the holders.

Despite their struggles, Sexton is fully expecting to face them at their best.

"The back-to-back champions is the big thing that we know we are facing," he said. "They have had a challenging season but they have still got themselves into second in the Premiership. They've still got themselves into a quarter-final in Europe.

"They know if they beat us, they get a home semi-final as well.

"I don't think they're too fussed about the position they're in.

"They've got guys that will come back now that will make them stronger. They are firmly in both competitions and that is where you want to be at this time of the year."

Ticket sales have ticked past the 46,000 mark for Saturday's game and that will surely count in Leinster's favour, yet they know their opponents won't have any fear of coming to Dublin after beating Munster at the Aviva Stadium in last year's semi-final.

"It is an advantage playing at home, we are going to have a crowd of 50,000 apparently and that's a big factor, a big motivating factor, you don't want to let those people down," Sexton said.

Negated

"So I don't think it is negated fully but I do think they will have no fear, they sort of thrive off these atmospheres, it is that 'against the world' and they seem to play their best under those circumstances.

"You saw it last year at the Aviva when the Aviva was red and they produced a brilliant performance to beat Munster in the end."

Leinster have been waiting for their turn to have a crack off the kingpins and it finally it has arrived.

He and his Ireland colleagues may have tasted glory in recent weeks, but the out-half is determined to get his province back to the top, starting on Sunday.

Irish Independent

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