Saturday 24 February 2018

Sexton steps up to snatch home comfort for Leinster


Where do you start with a game like this but at the finish? Enter Chris Malone: part villain, part hero after a shabby goalkicking display that saw him kick two from five, but the scorer of the try that was central to the Exiles' chances of staying in the Heineken Cup; then enter Jonny Sexton.

With less than two minutes on the clock in front of a spellbound crowd of 37,323, Malone slotted the penalty that put his team 11-8 ahead and put their backsides in the seat marked 'quarter-finalists'.

Then Leinster restarted on the money and got the ball back, whereupon Sexton leaned back and nailed a wonderful drop-kick -- well, a successful kick -- to add his name alongside that of Ronan O'Gara, who twice in his international career has done things like this. Truly, it seems you're most vulnerable to the most sickening of scores just after you've delivered a similar dose to someone else.

"We knew the home quarter-final was on the line," Sexton said. "It wasn't the best drop-kick but I'll take it."

So the champions now have a foothold on the last few rungs towards retaining their title. Coach Michael Cheika spoke about wanting to deliver a home quarter-final before shuffling off into the distance. Not only have they done that, but the calmness they showed under that white-hot pressure was tremendous. They did what we expect them to do these days: they delivered.

Of course there was an extra heart-stopping moment to it all. No sooner had Sexton launched successfully but Malone had another drop-goal shot which was barely off target. And Rob Kearney chose to whack it upfield instead of out of play.

Thanks very much, said Malone, and had another go. That too went achingly close. And at last, that was that. For the Exiles the painful result left them removed from the Amlin escape-route as well.

As it was, winning with a try, to overtake Northampton as a best runner-up, looked to be too much for them for much of the game: they had heaps of ball and little of the composure needed to turn it into points.

They trailed to a Sexton penalty after five minutes and by half-time were 8-3 behind despite having had lots of ball. Leinster's defence again was excellent and their only worries were the scrum, which flitted between good and dodgy, and the lineout, where Bernard Jackman was called ashore after 30 minutes and three balls lost.

The only try of the half was the culmination of a few minutes' top-quality rugby and it came from Leinster who moved up a gear with menace: they were direct and aggressive and always looking for space.

It was all started by man-of-the-match Gordon D'Arcy, whose footwork throughout was first-class. He took a lovely line that brought him in behind the Irish defence; he was on the end of the move a few seconds later after Brian O'Driscoll and Isa Nacewa had combined to put him over, but the wing's pass was forward.

From the scrum, however, Leinster produced their most disruptive move of the half, shunting the Exiles back and putting Peter Richards under serious pressure. Scragged by the excellent Kevin McLaughlin, the scrum-half lost the ball, and Eoin Reddan passed to Nacewa who had only to fall over and score.

That rattled London Irish badly. They were capable of breakouts but were as likely to fall over themselves as finish them off.

Their frustration was best illustrated early in the second half when Bob Casey man-handled Reddan at the side of a ruck, which prompted Cian Healy to react and David Paice to dwarf both by the scale of his reaction. Healy was the only one punished, whereupon Malone missed the penalty. It was his second miss from three attempts.

Irish should have fallen further behind on 55 minutes when referee Nigel Owens gave Leinster an advantage in Exiles' 22 but never delivered on it. How can referees think that a few metres gained in that part of the field is better than a handy three points? It almost caught Leinster out, for when they turned the ball over Topsy Ojo made another searing run out of defence.

On 66 minutes, however, Irish made the breakthrough when a fantastic run by Seilala Mapasua through the heart of the Leinster defence gave them a foothold close to the line. When they cut back, Malone squeezed over for a try that needed confirmation and then promptly missed the conversion.

The draw was no use to them and on 78 minutes Malone, then on one kick from four attempts, nailed the pressure shot that looked like the one to deliver the Exiles.

He hadn't bargained on Sexton, though. The Leinster out-half doesn't look like a fella still short of game time after breaking his hand against the Springboks in November. And neither do Leinster look like a team who doubt themselves when faced with imminent failure. Almost a year on from their success in this competition, they have the form and the mentality to go for it again.

Scorers -- London Irish: Malone try, 2 pens; Leinster: Nacewa try, Sexton 1 pen, d-g. London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; C Malone, P Hodgson; C Dermody (D Murphy 72), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion 60), N Kennedy, B Casey (G Johnson 80), T Thorpe, C Hala'ufia, S Armitage (K Roche 60).

Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (yc 47-57), B Jackman (J Fogarty 30), CJ van der Linde, L Cullen (M O'Kelly 65), N Hines, K McLaughlin, J Heaslip, S Jennings (S O'Brien 58).

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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