Thursday 19 July 2018

Neil Francis: Messianic Johnny Sexton shows his real class to expose Glasgow's imitators

Leinster's Jonny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Jonny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"But he that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose." - Anne Bronte

This was a game of dare, an invitation to Leinster to see if they could live with Glasgow on their fast pitch. What Glasgow must remember was that before Gregor Townsend departed for greater things his game plan was a thinly disguised replication of what Leinster were doing. Glasgow are Leinster-lite. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery and Glasgow played high tempo right to about the 70th minute when their fuel gauge went into the red.

This was a distressing loss for the Warriors, quite a number of their key players retiring from the pitch with serious injuries, but the final whistle told a tale. It crystallised the notion that if you play for width you have to last 80 minutes. Glasgow were out on their feet barking for oxygen and a signal failure to compete with the side they had modelled themselves on. Once again Leinster proved that when they are in the mood they are irresistible and imitators shrivel in their company.

Leinster played with the sort of vision and energy which - if they sustain it - marks them out as serious contenders. All they have to do is win their remaining two home games and they will qualify. What they do away from home is up to them, but now they have the appetite for it a home quarter-final is certainly within their compass. Glasgow will not give up - which helps Leinster's cause. They play Montpellier at home first in the double-header in December. Leinster set the bar yesterday and the minimum requirement here based on their start is a home quarter-final.

They call them the championship minutes, and in reality they had elapsed in the first half, but Leinster had obviously spent a lot of time working on their tight play. If you could establish a platform at the scrum and at maul irrespective of what is going on outside you, then you always have a chance of winning the game. Leinster will have talked amongst themselves, 'how do we take Glasgow?'

The Glasgow pack is competitive, hardworking and all-action, and their back row in time will develop. Johnny Gray and Tim Swinson are no twin towers; when it comes to high-grade grunt they just don't have it. Leinster squeezed them at scrum time and mauled them unwaveringly whenever the need arose.

Leinster were always sure that they had their number and so the moment which signalled which way this match was going to go came in the 41st minute. Sometimes the temptation when the clock goes red is to simply kick the ball into touch. Glasgow probably thought this as they packed down in the middle of the park 45 metres out from their own posts. With the wind against the kicker, Jonny Sexton wouldn't have a chance but that moment of weakness cost them dear and Leinster seized upon it as they lured the Glasgow back row off and drove the Glasgow scrum 10 metres backwards. Psychologically when you think the half is going to end at 10-all and then you have to prepare to defend your line from Leinster's maul, it means you are literally on the back foot. Toner took it in the middle and Glasgow couldn't shift them off the line quickly. Leinster got the squeeze on, broke a little bit to the right, kept control and patience, and Healy on board the plane this time crashed over to make it 17-10.

Sexton's value to his team is indisputable. Finn Russell looked lively and there was plenty of rink-a-dink but the Scottish player still has a deficit in experience and composure in comparison to his Irish rival. Sexton, knowing how crucial the conversion was, thought his way through the process. The wind had been a major factor in the first half and so to drive the stake through the heart making the conversion was imperative. The kick was in the tramlines about 25 metres out but the quality and care of his execution were world class. In golfing parlance he closed the club head, took a low swing and punched the ball low over the bar taking the wind out. He also placed the ball far flatter on the tee, and in terms of intent it emphasised to the nth degree where Leinster were mentally.

Lest we forget there is no love lost between these two teams and the overt expression and victory fist-pumps whenever tries came about told you that.

We were still in the championship minutes when Sexton's personality carved up the Scots again. Luke McGrath made the first break right through the middle and he connected with Sexton. If ever you needed to know about the difference in the sides it could be demonstrated by their demeanour in the red zone. Leinster's energy and patience were just too forceful. Scott Fardy paid off a large chunk of his sizeable salary when he effected a truly wonderful back-behind-the-body offload before contact which flummoxed the three expectant defenders.

Sexton scooted in and that was practically the game. In this sort of form Sexton is almost messianic. Despite the on-field narkiness there is a sense of repose and ease whenever he is in possession.

Leinster improved defensively from an awful display last week against Montpellier - and they were far from perfect yesterday, but their defensive effort was underpinned by a ten-and-zero tackle effort from Sexton. The 34 missed tackles which Leinster coughed up last week would never be permitted under Sexton's watch. I assume that they will be getting better as their season progresses.

Sexton was denied a second almost similar type try in the 66th minute as George Horne cynically tackled him early as he was about to do the same trick again. It should have been a yellow and could easily have been a penalty try.

Glasgow are still a dangerous side but they blew themselves out and their skill-set collapsed under pressure against a superior side. They are the first casualty of this difficult group. Leinster have set the bar and it's at a pretty high level - the trick now is to sustain it to April.

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