Red and blue rivalry is about more than perfect 10s
IT HAS become a week of firsts. Jonathan Sexton remembers his against Munster at Thomond Park. A rookie then, Christian Warner and Felipe Contepomi were injured and he was told early in the week to be ready to face Ronan O’Gara. Despite not being one to panic, the week was still a long one.
“It was great to get my first game,” he says. “It’s the games you want to play in and a few guys this week could be getting their first big start for Leinster, first game at the Aviva. They’re the games they have been waiting for since they came out of school and a few of them will get their chance now.”
The years have made Sexton’s task tomorrow less imposing than that day in Limerick but the way he sees it is that, as much as we make it out to be mortal combat, Sexton against O’Gara isn’t a head-to-head. He takes a broader view of these meetings rather than distilling them down to a fight between the 10s.
The dynamics between the two players have certainly changed and while Sexton steers away from personalising his job, the uncertain terrain of the past is no longer part of the scenery, at least not in front of over 40,000 people in the Aviva. “Obviously, I was young at the time. I looked up to him for many years before, he was the Irish outhalf then and had a lot of success with Munster at that stage, so it was pretty strange being on the same pitch as him then. Now, I’ve played a lot against him, with him, trained with him and it won’t be as strange,” says Sexton.
“But you know it’s not really about me playing him. It’s not about me versus Ronan O’Gara. It’s Leinster versus Munster, that’s the way and I’ve never looked at it as a one-on-one battle like a loosehead versus a tighthead. There are so many other things going on around you. It’s very unfair to compare player against player after a game because one pack is on top or the other pack is on top and there are so many things that you rely on. So I’ve never really looked at it as a one-on-one battle.”
His family’s relationship with the game is more complex. Some have a foot in Kerry and others in Dublin. It also helps for the family bragging rights that invariably the Munster games against Leinster have a magical quality of coming down to the last 10 or 15 minutes bar one or two matches. “They’re special and I always get texts from uncles saying: ‘I hope you play well, score a bagful of points, get man of the match and lose’, so that’s the way it is, it’s different for me but they always support me.”
Leinster and Munster spent the last few days speaking plain language to each other. At their new UCD headquarters, Leinster’s Monday meeting was a quick revision about all that has made them great and there wasn’t much of that against Connacht.
“Every game has its own circumstances,” says Sexton. “We’re coming in off a hiding from Connacht, they (Munster) are coming in off a defeat by Ospreys. So what happens a few weeks beforehand often is different circumstances so this game is different again. They’ve a new coach. It’ll be the first time we’ve played against them with a new coach and a lot of new players we haven’t played against and they won’t have played against our players because we’ve got a lot of injuries.”
On that front Gordon D’Arcy is progressing reasonably well but probably needs more time, while scrumhalf Eoin Reddan is set to be involved at some stage. Fullback Rob Kearney’s back makes him more of a next-week return, while Quinn Roux is unavailable.
Munster frontrow Damien Varley will be available for selection after appearing before a Celtic League Disciplinary hearing in Edinburgh. Varley was issued with a red card on Saturday by referee Dudley Phillips on the advice of touch judge Greg Morgan but the disciplinary committee saw nothing in the incident to warrant further sanction.