Tuesday 26 March 2019

'We must go to another level' - Johnny Sexton sounds battle cry ahead of Champions Cup final

Jonathan Sexton during the Leinster captain's run at the San Mames Stadium
Jonathan Sexton during the Leinster captain's run at the San Mames Stadium
Isa Nacewa looks to the sky during the Leinster captain’s run at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao yesterday. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

As they seek to join Toulouse as the top team on Europe's roll of honour by winning their fourth Champions Cup today, Leinster's leaders have called on their team-mates to ramp up their performance and go to another level to beat Racing 92.

Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa were in confident form as they met the media on the eve of the game after going through their last training session at the San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao.

Leo Cullen confirmed that James Lowe misses out on the squad as a result of Jamison Gibson-Park's inclusion on the bench. Under tournament rules, the head coach can only select two of his three overseas signings, and with Scott Fardy retained at blindside the reserve scrum-half squeezes out the exciting winger.

Luke McGrath is fit enough to start, but wore heavy strapping on his leg at the Captain's Run, while 20-year-old Jordan Larmour is on the right wing for only the second time this season.

Ahead of his fourth final, Sexton called on the players to deliver their best performance of the campaign.

"We've got to go out there and play as best we can, we've got to top our quarter-final and semi-final performances because we know we're going to have to go to another level to win the game," the out-half said.

"Even after the Saracens game and the Scarlets game, there were things throughout those games that we could have done better and it's always our focus as a group that we can get better.

"We feel that we need to get better in a lot of areas. We can't probably go out and play like we did against Scarlets, we have to change it up a little bit but still keep the fundamentals of our game the same.

"That's the big challenge - can you beat a Scarlets type team and then beat a team like Racing, who are very different?

"So that's what champions need to do, and we'll find out [today] if we can do that."

Captain Nacewa, who will play the last game of a glittering European career, echoed Sexton's sentiments.

"We talked before Scarlets and Saracens about taking a step and we did that," the Aucklander said.

"I've said it many times, it was a pretty lonely place losing a semi-final the year before, you learn a lot about yourself.


"It was about building on that, the last 12 months. We know we have to go to another level, we have to against such a world class team."

Racing 92 resisted the temptation to start Dan Carter, who remains on the bench with Springbok Pat Lambie remaining in the No 10 shirt and, apart from Teddy Iribaren replacing injured captain Maxime Machenaud,they are unchanged from the side that beat Munster three weeks ago.

Leinster are firm favourites to take home their first title since they beat Ulster in 2012, and Racing 92's Irish second-row Donnacha Ryan has been impressed with their run to the final.

"I know it is always difficult playing against Leinster," he said.

"Basically, we're playing against an Irish team, a Grand Slam-winning team. It's a massive challenge for us but that's why we play the game."

Meanwhile, Connacht yesterday confirmed that they have parted company with head coach Kieran Keane after a year in charge.

"After an assessment of the direction in which Connacht Rugby was going we have come to an agreement with Kieran Keane that he will leave the province with immediate effect," Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane said. "I would like to thank Kieran Keane for his efforts with Connacht Rugby this season and wish him well for the future.

"In conjunction with the IRFU we will now begin the process of recruiting a new Head Coach."

Irish Independent

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