Johnny Sexton’s steady hand on tiller can steer Leinster home
In-form Lions outhalf can help province to vital back-to-back victories over Exeter
Johnny Sexton in action against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park last weekend. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
This is it then. Scalping the Chiefs on their own patch was quite a feather in Leinster’s cap but augmenting that by completing the double in the Aviva Stadium, where they have a mixed record, would truly underline their status as European Champions Cup contenders.
With 40,000 tickets sold, and scope for that attendance to be swelled by walk-up supporters, there should be a fitting sense of occasion. To put the scale of the task in further perspective, it would be the first time Leinster have won their opening four pool games since 2004/05.
The Leinster captain Isa Nacewa has experienced enough of what he called these “unique” back-to-back games to know what they’re about, and even Leinster’s enforced additional night in Exeter last Sunday – akin to Connacht’s long trek to Krasnoyarsk two seasons ago, or Clermont’s extended stay for their rearranged game with Saracens, may have a positive impact.
“It’s a big mental challenge, turning around so quickly while having a long lead-in last weekend was a huge mental challenge in itself. And then after the win and the away game it is about getting the body right, turning the page quickly. A lot of guys were sore after the game.
“It’s a mental challenge to recover well, get back on the horse and go again. The quicker we do that the better. It’s been a good week. The extra night away gave people a few extra hours sleep, we enjoyed each other’s company. Then we got back to Dublin and started grinding again.”
Exeter are rumoured to be bringing 10,000 fans for what is a marquee fixture in their calendar as well as Leinster’s. The ‘home’ side arrive at this point in good fettle. If they could afford another injury anywhere it was assuredly the back row.
The unfortunate Rhys Ruddock, who’d been in the form of his life, has been ruled out with a hamstring injury, so his replacement last week Josh van der Flier, starts, with the versatile Seán O’Brien moving to blindside and Dan Leavy promoted to the bench.
Otherwise, Leinster have an unchanged 23 save for Andrew Porter’s inclusion amongst the replacements, thus putting him in line for his Euro debut after already winning three caps under Joe Schmidt.
This is no gimme. Last week will have reminded Exeter that the European Champions Cup is a step up from the Premiership. It will also have jolted them into life and this accomplished, well-coached side will be fighting for their lives. They’re also the ones with revenge in their nostrils.
As Leinster well know, winning away is no guarantee of winning at home a week later. Exeter will again look for field position in the Leinster 22 through their potent lineout maul, and if that is held up, will again look to go through their remorseless pick-and-latch close-in drives through multiple phases. The illusion of a bigger pitch which comes with a bigger stadium may also well induce more ambition and width into both teams’ games than was the case in Sandy Park, all the more so as it looks like being drier, if still as cold.
Hence, in what might well be a higher-scoring game than a week ago, Exeter will also assuredly realise that they actually had better reward – one try and one strong case for a penalty try which resulted in Sean Cronin’s yellow card – when going wide.
With their energetic and dangerous Lion, Jack Nowell recalled on the wing, along with Wallaby Lachie Turner at fullback, they look better equipped to do so too. Up front, Rob Baxter has recalled props Ben Moon and Tomas Francis, lock Sam Skinner and Sam Simmonds at No ‘8’, with the prolific Thomas Waldrom kept back for impact off the bench.
Yet Leinster look equipped to cope. It’s funny how they are always at their best with a Southern Hemisphere dog of war in the secondrow, think Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn, and nowhere has Scott Fardy’s influence been more pronounced than in organising their defensive maul, which repelled Exeter repeatedly last week.
They also have world-class performers, operating wholly in a team environment, in key positions, such as the newly resigned Tadhg Furlong, immense last week at tight-head, a prime ball-winner in Devin Toner and, of course, Sean O’Brien, whose breakdown efficiency last week was utterly unrelenting.
So it is that Jack Conan and Luke McGrath are really flourishing, while the industrious pair of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose should only come on from last week. Then there’s the experience and form of their back three Rob Kearney, Nacewa and Fergus McFadden, who give Leinster such work-rate around the pitch and proficiency in the air.
If all are at their best, there are few weak links in the chain.
Most of all though, there’s Johnny Sexton. If it becomes very loose, and this is not suiting Leinster, he’ll redirect the flow of the game, tighten it up if necessary, launch closer in targets, go to the air or play territory.
He is still defending stoutly – he wouldn’t know any other way – but is not obliged to take the ball into contact unnecessarily, although his running game is still having a profound impact – last week only a few blades of grass ruled out a try-scoring pass to augment his role as creator and finisher of Leinster’s first try.
In a rich vein of form, the Lions Test outhalf of their last two tours is playing some of the best rugby of an increasingly fruitful career. Whatever it requires, when it comes to making key decisions at key moments, and executing them, Leinster have a steady hand on the tiller.
LEINSTER RUGBY: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Isa Nacewa (c); Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour.
EXETER CHIEFS: Lachlan Turner; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten, Olly Woodburn; Gareth Steenson (c), Nic White; Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Francis, Mitch Lees, Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Matt Kvesic, Sam Simmonds. Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams, Jonny Hill, Tom Waldrom, Will Chudley, Sam Hill, James Short.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (Fra).
Results so far: Leinster – 24-17 v Montpellier (h), 34-18 v Glasgow (a), 18-8 v Exeter (a). Exeter – 24-15 v Glasgow (h), 27-24 v Montpellier (a), 8-18 v Leinster (h).
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/4 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 3/1 Exeter. Handicap betting (Exeter +9 pts) Evens Leinster, 18/1 Draw, Evens Exeter.
Forecast: Leinster to win.
* Tickets can be bought at leinsterrugby.ie or on match day from the Ticketmaster van on Lansdowne Road from 1pm.