Sunday 21 January 2018

‘From the CEO down, everyone must take responsibility’ - Sexton's scathing analysis of Leinster's season

Jonathan Sexton, Leinster, following his side's defeat
Jonathan Sexton, Leinster, following his side's defeat
A frustrated Sexton after the game. Photo : Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was Matt Williams who brought the phrase 'if you want bank holidays, work in a bank' to Leinster Rugby. It was just as well that that doesn't extend to the administrative staff in UCD because the mood around the province's base was a dark one yesterday.

The players and coaches had already begun picking through the bones of Saturday's performance in defeat to Ulster yesterday when they fulfilled their media commitments, with Johnny Sexton fronting up for the inquest.

Last week, the out-half was upbeat about Leinster's long-term prospects when he was speaking at a commercial engagement, but did admit in a subsequent interview with Off The Ball that Leinster are "culturally nowhere near where they were" when they were claiming three European titles in four years.

Saturday's performance was, in many ways, a manifestation of those slipping standards. It was Leinster's 11th loss this season and there is a sense that the province, having become so accustomed to winning during their golden years, have simply become used to losing.

Sexton's return was supposed to herald a return to the great days, but perhaps it was unrealistic to pin the hopes of the organisation on one man, particularly in a World Cup year, as he returned to a vastly changed set-up.

And he says everyone at UCD must hold themselves to account for the drop in standards.

Johnny Sexton was speaking at UCD yesterday as Leinster begin the inquest into Saturday’s heavy defeat to Ulster. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton was speaking at UCD yesterday as Leinster begin the inquest into Saturday’s heavy defeat to Ulster. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

"It's obviously got to be everyone, hasn't it?" he mused.

"It's got to be everyone in the environment, from the CEO right down to whoever's at the bottom. Everyone's got to take responsibility, everyone's got to look at themselves and see if what they've done over the last few months has been good enough.

"Then you start to get answers from that. There's a lot to fix. I spoke last week of getting back to where we were, I think we can still get there but it's going to be a hell of a lot of work to do that.

"Hopefully we're still one game away from a semi-final and then you are one game away from a final and you can try and produce a big performance.

"But it's not going to get over the fact that we need to get a hell of a lot better to get back where we want to be which is at the top of Europe."

Leinster have two weeks to be ready for the Guinness Pro12 play-offs. They play Treviso this Saturday on the final day and, while they are doing their best to talk up the Italians, who shocked Connacht on Friday, they should have no trouble picking up the points they need to get back in the top two to earn a home semi-final.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen after his sides 'hiding' at the hands of Ulster at Ravenhill. Photo: Stephen McCarth /Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen after his sides 'hiding' at the hands of Ulster at Ravenhill. Photo: Stephen McCarth /Sportsfile

A bonus-point victory will guarantee Cullen's men a home date at the RDS, no matter what happens in Galway between the top two Connacht and Glasgow.

No team has won an away semi-final since the Pro12 introduced play-offs, yet there must be fears that a game against Treviso and a week off for the Champions Cup final will not be enough for Leo Cullen and his coaching team to increase the performance levels to the required point.

Since the Six Nations, the head coach has rarely played his strongest team and, while Ireland will probably see the benefit of the rotation in South Africa, it hasn't done the cohesion at Leinster any good.

"Maybe we are just not preparing well enough," Sexton conceded. "Obviously we struggled in Europe and our league results have been pretty good bar the weekend.

"We just weren't good enough. What else can I say? There are lots of areas that I could talk about technically, just basic skills where we let ourselves down.

"Unforced errors, that's individual responsibility. We were quite passive in defence. I don't know if it was guys coming back not having played in four weeks, or guys coming back from injury. I'm not sure but we have to find a solution pretty quick."

Of course, Leinster losing heavily and Munster getting a relieving win switches the heat eastwards for a week.

Despite a desperately poor European campaign and some below-par performances in the interprovincial games, Cullen has escaped heavy criticism in his first season in charge.

His predecessor Matt O'Connor was deeply unpopular with fans and the former captain, who spent a year as the Australian's forwards coach before taking over the top job, has plenty of credit in the bank from his playing days.

He need only look at Anthony Foley, however, to know that that credit is not limitless.

Most of the criticism has fallen on the players who have not performed to their potential too often and need to perform for their coach, particularly the frontline internationals.

"Leo has come in and done a great job but at times he's been let down by the players or by what we are doing on a day to day basis," Sexton said.

"It wouldn't take a genius to work out that there's going to be criticism though; when you lose 30-6 to one of your biggest rivals it's expected.

"Again, we're our own biggest critics. We'll be criticising each other, well I hope we will."

The out-half won't be trawling through the pieces written about the team as he needs to keep his focus clear. If anyone can lead the province back to their previous levels it is him, but he also needs to keep his own performance levels high.

"I'm getting more comfortable in that leadership role again," he said.

"It was very hard for me to come back in, especially after the World Cup and being away for two years previously and then you come back and you're trying to find your own feet, trying to look after yourself.

"Now, I feel a little bit more comfortable but you've got to look after yourself and that's all you can do in these situations, try and help the group along where you can.

"But everyone who played on Saturday has to look at themselves in these situations and bring what they can to the table from a leadership perspective after that."

Saturday's Ravenhill defeat was a sobering experience for everyone at Leinster and Sexton wants a reaction.

What type he gets will say much about where the three-times European champions really are.

Irish Independent

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