Monday 23 October 2017

Sexton eyes 'biggest ever challenge'

Leinster 37Zebre 7

Conor George

Conor George

JONATHAN SEXTON left no-one in any doubt about where Leinster's focus is when he stated that the next two games are "our biggest challenge ever".

When he added that Leinster "need to win in France" the significance of the next fortnight to the defending European champions was underlined. Clermont, who were beaten by Toulouse in the Top 14 on Saturday, have 10 points from their two European outings, Leinster eight.

"Our whole season depends on these two games," stated Sexton. "It is always this important when it comes to the Heineken Cup.

"In different circumstances we'd probably be happy to come away from France with one point (losing bonus) and take four from our home game, but we probably need to win in France too.

"Clermont are on 10 points so the losing bonus point might not do us. This is probably our biggest challenge, I'd say ever, especially with the couple of guys we'll be missing.

"We're going to need the younger guys to step up to the plate and for everyone to play to their potential and have one of their best games in a Leinster jersey.

"And even then it might not be good enough."

The focus from Sexton was clearly mirrored by his colleagues. They wasted no more energy than they needed to in accounting for Zebre. The emphasis was on remaining fit and healthy for the challenges to come.

In truth, and despite coach Joe Schmidt waxing lyrical about the attributes of some of the Italian side's players after the fact, Leinster were never in any danger of being overly tested by a team who have yet to record a win this season.

For 25 minutes the Italians' scramble defence did frustrate Leinster. They were physical. They hit hard until the hosts hit them with 10 points in the space of a minute.

Sexton slotted a penalty and when Andrew Conway cut through to cross the line there was an air of inevitability about the affair.

Zebre had, by then, been corralled inside their '22' and Leinster were laying siege. When, eventually, the home side retreated at the half-time whistle Sexton had added another seven points with a 'shake and bake' move that bamboozled the defenders on his way through.

There was still very much a feeling that Leinster were doing no more than they had to. But, as Sexton confirmed afterwards, the exercise was important preparation for what lies ahead, especially in terms of making their dominance count.

"We won't get too many chances in Clermont's '22' so when we do we need to take them," he said.

"We played there a couple of years ago and we were in their '22' and didn't take that chance. They immediately went up the other end and got a try so if we get chances in their '22' we have to make them count like we did tonight."

Prudence saw Schmidt withdraw Sexton and Sean O'Brien at half-time. Sexton was given a rest but there was some slight worry over O'Brien, who had needed attention to an ankle injury after 21 minutes. Happily the coach later allayed fears that O'Brien might be a doubt for the trip to France.

"Sean will be fine, 100pc (barring any injury in training this week)," said Schmidt.

"It was always the plan to give him 40. He's inside the changing-room giving out about being taken off, which is always a good sign."

The changes in personnel didn't dampen the Leinster enthusiasm but Zebre did give them a scare soon after the break when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi sniped around the fringes of a ruck – after being hauled in by Leo Cullen – for a try.

Their unlikely resurgence was brought to a shrieking halt before the hour mark when Fergus McFadden showed tremendous strength to burst through two tackles and touch down for a try he also converted.

The bonus point was secured less than 10 minutes later when Cian Healy charged over and, fittingly, McFadden rounded off his Man of the Match performance with his second try of the night.

As exercises go this was a useful one for Leinster.

It was, of course, far below the pace of what they will experience in France next weekend but after a month away on Test duty they have successfully reintegrated the majority – Jamie Heaslip was given the weekend off – of their internationals and are in good form.

LEINSTER – I Nacewa (F Carr 60); A Conway, G D'Arcy (I Boss 65), A Goodman, F McFadden; J Sexton (I Madigan h-t), E Reddan; H van der Merwe (C Healy 52), S Cronin, (A Dundon 74), M Bent (M Ross 52); L Cullen, D Browne (T Denton 52); K McLaughlin, R Ruddock, S O'Brien (J Murphy h-t).

ZEBRE –R Trevisan (P Buson 60); L Sarto, G Garcia, M Pratichetti, S Sinoti (D Odiete 53); D Halangahu, T Tebaldi (A Chillon 63); M Aguero (A de Marchi 53), C Festuccia (D Giazzon 53), D Ryan (C Fazzari (53); Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Cattina (N Belardo), M Bergamasco, F Cristiano (E Caffini 60).

Ref –A McMenemy (SRU)

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