Monday 20 August 2018

Johnny Sexton: We are a different team this year

Leinster 38-16 Scarlets

Jonathan Sexton in action against Samson Lee of Scarlets. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton in action against Samson Lee of Scarlets. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

We wondered whether or not Leinster had learned lessons from two semi-final defeats last season, and their response was utterly emphatic.

Many of these players may have won a Grand Slam in the meantime, but in a blue jersey 12 months of hurt had been built up, and the Scarlets felt the full brunt of that as they were demolished in every facet.

Leinster players celebrate their first try by James Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster players celebrate their first try by James Ryan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

This wasn't just an awesome performance that will help banish the demons, it also sent out a major statement of Leinster's intent.

It will take something special to stop them claiming their fourth title in Bilbao on May 12.

At Friday's press conference, the tone was set by Leo Cullen and Johnny Sexton, who while having the utmost respect for a dangerous Scarlets outfit, just oozed confidence and clarity in what they were planning.

That was reflected in the team's performance at a resplendent Aviva, as the Leinster pack obliterated the Scarlets to set the platform for the supreme Sexton to pull the strings.

Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets runs throgh to score his side's only try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets runs throgh to score his side's only try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"I think we looked like a different team compared to the semi-final last year," the out-half reflected.

"Some of the pack that played today weren't around last year and they made a big difference.

"It was just really pleasing that all our hard work over the last couple of weeks paid off.

"When you come to a final anything can happen. We know that. We've been underdogs before in finals and won, we've been favourites and lost.

"You need to be humble and realise everything is about our preparation now. I don't think we were that much better than the Scarlets, we just took a couple of chances. We were quite clinical, which is the pleasing part."

If this had been a boxing match, the Scarlets' corner would have thrown in the towel.

Five tries to one told its own story, but the manner in which Leinster bullied the PRO12 champions was impressive.

"The game plan today was what we were meant to do last year - you need to play a little bit different against the Scarlets," Sexton maintained.

"I think at times last year we tried to go around them and we got caught out, but today we picked our moments when we went wide a lot better. In fairness to the forwards they fronted up time and time again... and Robbie (Henshaw), he was insane.

"What an incredible athlete, to spend the time out that he has, come back and it looked like he had never been away. By far the most impressive performance today."

Henshaw was indeed immense. Ten weeks after having shoulder surgery that was expected to end his season, the 24-year-old somehow managed to recover in time and put in a staggeringly good performance.

Missing out on most of Ireland's Grand Slam success will have hurt Henshaw, and the centre used that to fuel his desire, as he dominated collisions and got over the gain line every time he got ball in hand.

By the time Fergus McFadden scored Leinster's third converted try on the stroke of half-time they were 22-9 in front, and the Scarlets looked well beaten.

McFadden picked up a leg injury as he dotted down and he will undergo a scan to determine the extent of the damage.

Second-half tries from the colossus that is Scott Fardy and Sexton, who also had a 100pc record from the tee, kicking six from six, were added to first-half scores from James Ryan, Cian Healy and McFadden.

A late consolation try from old boy Tadhg Beirne, converted by Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked 11 points, didn't take the gloss off.

Ryan has still never lost a professional game of rugby, as he made it 20 wins. A phenomenal record for a player who gets better with every game.

"Yeah, he's been immense," Sexton said. "If we had him last year then some of those games could have been very different, he's had that big an impact.

"He's been outstanding in his first season and off the pitch in his preparation and making sure he's switched on in everything that he does."

It is not just Ryan who is switched on, every Leinster player is. It is why they look destined to be crowned champions in three weeks.

Leinster - R Kearney; F McFadden (J Larmour h-t), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton (capt) (J Carbery 61), J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 71); C Healy (J McGrath 54), S Cronin (J Tracy 58), T Furlong (A Porter 61), D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 71); S Fardy, D Leavy (J Conan 67), J Murphy.

Scarlets - R Patchell; L Halfpenny, S Williams (S Hughes 75), H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies (A Davies 71), R Evans (D Evans 75), K Owens (capt) (D Evans 54), S Lee (W Kruger 52), T Beirne, D Bulbring (S Cummins 55); A Shingler (L Rawlins 67), J Davies, J Barclay (W Boyde 71).

REF - R Poite (France)

Irish Independent

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