Saturday 25 January 2020

Tony Ward: Sexton-Madigan combo can wreak havoc for Ireland

Not for the first time, I must credit Joe Schmidt. In selecting an under-strength side for the first of Leinster's back-to-back finals, he took a calculated gamble and it paid off.

Given the quality of Friday's win over Stade Francais, allied to the expectation that Fergus McFadden, Sean O'Brien, Richardt Strauss and Brian O'Driscoll will be fit to take on Ulster in the Pro12 final at the RDS on Saturday, the newly crowned Amlin Cup champions couldn't be in better nick.

The fact that Stade Francais played with over two-thirds possession yet lost by four tries to one tells you everything you need to know about Leinster in the Schmidt era.

Defensive discipline plus that ability to strike from anywhere at any time makes Leinster under Schmidt irrepressible. If they can up the ante out of touch and at scrum time, then heaven help any future opposition.

In perfect playing conditions on a sun-drenched if chilly Friday evening, they provided the aristocratic Parisians with a masterclass in clinical efficiency. Despite conceding what they would consider a soft second-half try, they won pulling up.

With Sergio Parisse as ever the inspiration, centres Paul Williams (son of former All Black great Bryan 'BG' Williams) and particularly Geoffrey Doumayrou asked some searching questions in an opening half spent almost entirely in Leinster's half.

But the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Leinster defence made the foundation upon which this latest trophy success was built.

Collective resilience allied to individual brilliance honed on the training field enable things to happen on the big stage. So when Isa Nacewa scorched through a gap created through an inside pass from Jonny Sexton, or when the same two players combined through a pin-point cross-field kick culminating in a Rob Kearney try, it's not just by chance.

So too Isaac Boss' cleverly placed kick for Andrew Conway to regather and transfer to the supporting Sean Cronin in close on one movement. Three first-half tries largely against the run of play but each dramatically different in manufacture and execution. It's winning rugby the Leinster way, the Schmidt way, and all so easy on the eye.

From an individual perspective there were big performances from Conway (Munster folk should be licking their lips in anticipation of his arrival), Nacewa (what a loss he is going to be not only to Leinster but to a game he embellishes almost every time he plays), and Kearney who, like Cian Healy in the final half-hour, was at the very top of his game.

Sexton rubber-stamped his position as number one No 10 for the Lions, unleashing his full repertoire, while O'Brien, before his game ended prematurely (and somewhat worryingly), was back alongside Jamie Heaslip at the heart of the action. O'Brien's prognosis allowing, it represented an encouraging outing for Warren Gatland all round.

Beyond that, Boss again lived up to his name since assuming responsibility from the injured Eoin Reddan at the base of the Leinster scrum.

But the most interesting performance came from makeshift centre Ian Madigan. The occasional appearance of Ronan O'Gara at No 10 with Sexton switching to centre in the final stages of Declan Kidney's latter internationals was nothing more than a quick fix or sop to game time.

QUALITIES

However, given the qualities in defence and attack that the ever-improving Madigan brings to midfield, the Sexton/Madigan combination could prove a real proposition for Ireland, despite the fact that both will be playing out-half at club level, for Racing Metro and Leinster respectively.

The option of playing two genuine first receivers with comparable skill-sets could prove hugely beneficial at international Test level. Both can kick, pass, defend and attack flat comfortably, with Madigan particularly adept in that latter regard. Schmidt may well have uncovered a tremendous centre alternative for Ireland.

All told, it made for a justifiable gamble, a well deserved win and a third European trophy in three seasons. More importantly, it tees up next weekend's Pro12 final nicely and gives Leinster their best shot to date at that elusive double.

Ulster will make for much more formidable opposition but given the enormity of the occasion, the emotion surrounding Nacewa, Sexton and Schmidt all moving on, Friday's relatively comfortable win presents the opportunity for the fairytale send-off – although Mark Anscombe and Ulster might just see things a little differently.

Irish Independent

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