Johnny Sexton full of optimism for future despite European exit
Leinster outhalf ‘gutted’ not to get crack at Saracens in Champions Cup final
Leinster’s Johnny Sexton: “The first 15, it cost us really, didn’t it?” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Johnny Sexton took this semi-final defeat on the chin, as he does, and sportingly admitted Clermont were the better team after wishing them well in the final. But despite taking infinitely more encouragement from this season’s European campaign compared to last, the sense of a missed opportunity and what-might-have-been was palpable
Nor did the nature of the defeat discourage him from believing that Leinster can continue dining at Europe’s top table after working their way back there.
“No, it was a hard game. It was well-contested. I don’t think there was much between the sides. We would have loved to have seen how close we could have gotten to Saracens and we don’t get the chance now, which is really gutting. We’ll learn from it and come back stronger I think. We spoke about it afterwards, we’ve got to use this experience and get better for it and try and win the Pro12 now.
“The young guys have come in and made a big impact; Stuart [Lancaster] has made a huge impact. We thought we could have done it this year. We weren’t happy that we got to the semi-final. It’s a big improvement on last year. We’d big aspirations to go and compete in the final against Saracens, who would have been favourites but we would have fancied our chances. Edinburgh would have turned blue, we’d have turned out. It’s gutting, small margins.”
Sexton’s probing and passing, in tandem with the trio of tyros in Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery helped to haul Leinster back into game. He also landed six kicks from six, and as his penalties whittled Clermont’s 15-0 down to three points, all the momentum was with Leinster.
Indeed, Sexton was briefly lining up a conversion for a putative 19-15 advantage when Dan Leavy’s try was over-ruled after Nigel Owens and the TMO decreed that Leavy had held Aurélien Rougerie at the base of a ruck.
“It’s a massive point in the game, at 15-12. We go ahead for the first time in the game having had all the ball at the start of the second-half. In fairness, Camille Lopez had two great drop-goals but even then I don’t think they looked like scoring in that second-half, they didn’t really have the ball.
“It was a big turning point. I couldn’t really see the screen to be honest, it was pretty poor. Maybe Dan cleaned him out of the ruck, but maybe held on to him. I thought he let go in time, thought maybe Rougerie wouldn’t have made the tackle anyway. He didn’t look like he wanted to make the tackle.
“Those things just sometimes aren’t taken into account; we were a little bit frustrated with a few of the calls. But at the end of the day we weren’t good enough, we were beaten by the better team and we’ve got to say that.
“We still could have won the game, even when we got the penalty to get within a try; we win the kick-off there and you wouldn’t have bet against us going the length – at least I believe that. But then we lost the kick-off, so yeah, small margins.”
It wasn’t so much that the disallowed try and ensuing penalty by Morgan Parra, effectively a 10-point turnaround, deflated Leinster as that it revived home team and crowd dramatically.
“They got three off the penalty, it’s amazing how decisions can go. There’s obviously question marks about the first try that they got. Look, we’re proud of ourselves but ultimately not good enough.”
What annoyed Sexton more was the start, where Leinster allowed Clermont to motor into a 15-0 lead inside 15 minutes.
“The first 15, it cost us really, didn’t it? To go 15-0 down, it was really disappointing. We’ve got to look at the reasons why. Obviously, we didn’t get the rub of the green on a couple of occasions when we needed to put a bit of pressure on them.
“We got a chance off our kick-off and we put it into the corner, won the ball back and got a penalty against us. Small things like that. Even if we get three there, it makes a big difference, gets us back into the game.
“But we just couldn’t get a foothold for around 25 minutes, a mixture of our errors and how clinical they were. We gave them half a chance and they took two scores really well. That’s the margins it comes down to.
“We had chances in the second half. We got ‘threes’ a couple of times when we should have got ‘five’ but for the last pass. So disappointed, gutted actually, but I think we can be proud of the effort and the way we played.
“Ultimately, we came up short but it’s a good learning experience, especially for the younger guys in the squad. We’ve got a very young squad so it’s hard to take at the moment. We’ll bounce back.”