Cian Tracey: 'Master vs apprentice, part two - Sexton aims to remind Carbery why he is still boss'
The two lasting images of when Johnny Sexton last played for Leinster in the PRO14 are of him being driven into the turf by Fineen Wycherley and barking at Joey Carbery as he dragged his young rival to the ground during a scuffle.
Such is the amount of rugby that we have seen since Munster beat Leinster in that tempestuous clash at Thomond Park last Christmas, it’s amazing to think that was the last time Sexton lined out in the league.
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Rewind the clock 12 months when Leinster returned to domestic action following their Champions Cup final success, and Leo Cullen freshened things up with Sexton, who was carrying a knock, sitting out the PRO14 semi-final win over Munster.
Ross Byrne did a fine job that afternoon at the RDS, as he has done pretty much every time he has been asked to deputise.
Just like every Leinster player did in Newcastle last weekend in the defeat to Saracens, Sexton took his fair share of punishment, which could potentially see Cullen opt to recall Byrne just as he did last year.
It was perhaps telling that when Leinster were chasing the game and with Sexton having shipped a couple of bangs, Byrne remained on the bench alongside both of the other backs, who were also not called upon.
Leinster supporters have hardly seen their side’s talisman in the league this season (four games to be precise), but in a World Cup year and given Sexton’s injury profile, that maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Missing any game, regardless of who it is against, has never sat well with the 33-year old, who will have made it clear to Cullen that he wants to play against the old foes tomorrow.
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A week is a long time to stew over a performance that Sexton will feel wasn’t up to his own lofty standards, particularly after his scintillating display in the European semi-final win over Toulouse. That day at the Aviva Stadium, the World Player of the Year reminded everyone why he currently holds that title as he rediscovered his swagger that went missing for large parts of the Six Nations.
Given that Sexton went straight into the Six Nations without having played since that night in Thomond Park, many people pointed to that game as the one where it all started to go wrong for him. Those same people are the ones who are writing him off again after Owen Farrell got the better of him for the second time this year.
As is always the case, an out-half will only be able to play ball if the pack provides the platform to do so.
For the most part, Saracens dominated Leinster in the contact area, which inevitably had a knock-on effect on the extent to which Sexton was able to pull the strings.
The same thing happened in February when England’s bruising forwards steamrolled Ireland.
One of the criticisms that has been aimed at Sexton after last weekend was his lack of inventive kicking in an attempt to counteract Saracens’ rush defence.
In terms of kicking more often for the space that opened up in the back-field, some of that flak is fair, but the idea of using the cross-field kick was perhaps negated by the fact that Saracens are very efficient in their aerial game in how they escort runners off the ball and slap the ball back rather than compete for it.
Munster’s defence has generally been excellent this season, but it is not at the level that Saracens’ is and Leinster will be mindful of that as they look to vary their approach in taking the ball flat to the gain-line and sitting back deeper, depending on how the play develops.
Despite the perception that Saracens dominated Leinster in all facets, Cullen’s side created enough scoring opportunities and will be very frustrated that they didn’t take advantage of them.
Carbery’s return to the RDS tomorrow adds another level of intrigue to a fascinating encounter that has taken on even more significance since Leinster were dethroned as European champions.
Even with Sexton missing out, Carbery started at full-back in last year’s semi-final, which helped make up his mind that moving to Limerick was the smartest path to take if he wanted to become a more complete out-half.
The heated moment between the pair in December, which was brushed off by both, indicated that Sexton sees Carbery as an international rival now, as he looked to send a message to the 23-year-old who he once worked beside every day in Leinster.
He is not finished yet and while Carbery’s time as Ireland’s first-choice number 10 will come, as long as Sexton is fit and available, he will be waiting in the wings for a while yet.
Almost five months on since his last PRO14 game, all eyes, as they generally are, will be on Sexton, and part two of his battle with Carbery.