Johnny Sexton: Saracens clash the ‘biggest battle of our careers’

Leinster captain under no illusions about the scale of the task facing holders in the final

Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney celebrate after victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney celebrate after victory over Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Dave Alred calls it the “ugly zone”. Whenever Johnny Sexton reaches into this dark dimension, a performance of trophy-gathering potential breaches the surface.

In days leading up to the surgical dismantling of Toulouse, Alred flew from Augusta, Georgia to Dublin. The English swing guru pursued by summer came to realign Sexton’s strike. The working relationship began 11 years ago. Loosely termed a kicking coach, Pádraig Harrington, Jonny Wilkinson and Brad Thorn swear by him, so does Sexton, taking tutelage whenever available.

There is no Isa Nacewa escape hatch anymore, should lower limbs temporarily deny him access to the most precious gifts, and Ireland suffered the brunt of his injury-interrupted season. Niggly, annoying disruptions clouding performance, especially during the collective collapse against Wales in Cardiff.

All Sexton needed was a healing body. That’s why his usual ways have been unseen since the Murrayfield pounding. He last wore blue at Thomond Park before the New Year.

His return to form shows Leinster in full bloom again. There was even a snap shot of 2009 as he attempted a 45-metre drop goal. It dropped short but the audacity sent a surge of confidence through the audience.

Players were already responding to their captain with Sexton choreographing the James Lowe try on 13 minutes. Brilliance from Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy – offloading like centres – stemmed from his instinct to release, to hold, to probe at each moment.

“Yeah, a mixed bag,” he rated himself afterwards.

“During the week I felt like I was cramming for a big exam, I haven’t trained in a few weeks so I had to fit in a lot of work. I probably tried to do a little bit too much. You’d think you’d learn from experience not to do that but for such a big game and you don’t have match fitness it weighs heavy on you. Still it’s better to be undercooked than carrying niggles.

“It’s good to get the body right. Hopefully I can stay god for the rest of 2019 please God.”

The occasional error did creep into his exhibition. An overdone line kick. A giant 48-metre penalty fading wide. Neither quelled his renewed belief in technique, immediately launching a sky-scraping garryowen for Rob Kearney to chase. Trademark moves everywhere.

Eternal risks

Trademark growling at officials not so much.

“Where’s Johnny?” Wayne Barnes knew what was coming when deciding to disallow Lowe’s second score, after Jack Conan impeded Pita Ahki. “Let me just explain...”

A lengthy conversation only paused by the interval. Barnes can talk to Sexton, other referees are less keen, but the interaction was positive. Alred calls it productive language.

By then Leinster had a most productive 17-6 lead.

More points were needed and opportunity kept springing from his right toe. A punchy grubber forced Cheslin Kolbe to carry over the whitewash near the Toulouse line as Leinster strangled the life from this semi-final early in the second half.

Yes, of course, Sexton was fortunate to avoid real damage when manhandled by Joe Tekori, but that’s the eternal risk of a man who now turns attentions to denying Owen Farrell a European trophy as captain.

Because he wants the very same honour.

There was more, so much more. The left wrist flicked a delightful pass for Jordan Larmour’s dancing feet. The winger was held but Scott Fardy finished off the contest with 52 minutes on the clock.

There were further glimpses of Sexton’s wonderful passing range but an insurance penalty on 65 minutes ended his afternoon with Fardy leading them home. Whipped off, put on ice perhaps until the bandwagon reaches St James’ Park for a collision with Saracens that all of a sudden decides which team owns this era.

“We saw yesterday how they dominated Munster and we know how tough a side Munster are so we’ll be up against it but we’ll prepare now for the biggest battle of our careers.”

The biggest battle of their careers line raised a few eyebrows.

“Did you see Saracens yesterday? That’s why.

“I’ve heard their players and coaches reference our victory over them last year. Billy Vunipola will be back. He’s a huge player for them. That’s why I think it is going to be the toughest game we’ve ever played.”

This goes back to what Leo Cullen spoke about, how Sexton drives standards in the group.

“There is never an end point to it,” said Cullen of his captain.

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