Leo Cullen: Saracens’ targeting of Sexton played right into Leinster’s hands
Outhalf had to roll with the cheap shots before decisive third quarter
Leinster’s Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong tackle Saracens’ Owen Farrell during the Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Johnny Sexton booted the ball away like every young boy has done when the invisible referee refuses to punish a filthy hack in the backfield as the eternal game battles sunset.
“It’s tough on Johnny because he is being played off the ball a few times in the first half,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen. “It’s hard for him not to get frustrated. I’ll have a look back at the game and some of those clips – there are three or four instances when he is being hit, played late off the ball.
“How that unfolds, okay, it is important to take all those things in the context of the game.”
Still, the Bosch strike left this Champions Cup quarter-final evenly balanced at 13-12 to Leinster with 34 minutes clocked.
Hell hath no fury like a cheap-shotted Sexton. The 32-year-old’s shoulder cleared the next ruck before carrying like his younger brother – a fully fledged lock – into Saracens heavies.
This is what they wanted. The difference between Sexton and his predecessor is Ronan O’Gara used to avoid the violence, knowing the team needed his right foot and brain more than any other body part.
Sexton peeled out of contact holding his head on nine minutes, he banged his leg soon after in a clash with Maro Itoje, yet kept playing until Joey Carbery arrived on 68 minutes. By then the contest was sown up at 30-19.
But Leinster flipped the targeting of Sexton by Saracens – from Richard Wigglesworth’s late shoulder to George Kruis and Itoje landing ferocious imprints over the borderline of legality – so Cullen and Stuart Lancaster identified one area the European champions had neglected.
Vacant space down the short side ended the English club’s quest to capture three successive Champions Cups.
Leinster and Sexton ruthlessly exposed them immediately after half-time when Rob Kearney bulleted up the left wing.
“Saracens had a big wall of defenders in midfield,” Cullen calmly explained. “There was definitely space on the short side so it was about us keeping going after those short sides.
“The defended pretty hard on Johnny in the first half, they were playing him is the best way to describe it; they were going aggressively at him so there is going to be space for somebody else. It’s important that we get the balance in our game so we are not just reliant on him or any one player.”
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall had a different perspective.
“There certainly wasn’t any plan to do that. We wanted to make [Sexton] make his decisions early. We wanted him to pass a little bit sooner than he wanted to, to kick a little bit earlier. But apart from that, there was no other plan.”