Seminal story of mercurial Sexton exposes penny-wise but pound-foolish Leinster

Against Toulon the province’s depth of talent was finally laid bare

Amid the din at the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday, and it was some din, there was the unmistakable sound of chickens coming home to roost.

For even the IRFU must now privately be rueing whether the additional €100,000 they "saved" by not keeping Johnny Sexton in Leinster was money not well spent.

By dint of Munster reaching the semi-finals over the weekend, the IRFU will receive an additional €450,000 prize dividend from the ERC, taking their haul thus far to about the €1.8 million mark. Given the Union budget only for one quarter-finalist (€450,000), that is still a handsome return.

However had Leinster won to earn a home semi-final, and with it an Aviva rental, that would have netted the Union an additional €750,000 (as would Ulster had they won), so it missed out on a further €1.5 million windfall. But put another way, had the Union coughed up another €100,000 to keep Sexton with Leinster and make him the best-paid player in the Irish system (as by rights a world-class goal-kicking outhalf should be) might Leinster have beaten Northampton at home and thus secured a home quarter-final and advanced to the last four?

If so, the Union would have had earned €450,000 more than they have accrued from Leinster reaching the quarter-finals, with the potential to earn another €750,000 from them earning a home country semi-final and reaching the final. In other words they, as well as Leinster, would have been handsomely in credit.

Leinster's lament
There's been too much speculation towards accumulation in this country in recent times, but one can safely assume Leinster wish the IRFU had done so. Instead, they had to accrue Jimmy Gopperth, whose relative lack of experience at this level as well as lack of game time in the last couple of months was perhaps exposed in the Felix Mayol cauldron.

One could understand the thinking behind Gopperth's selection ahead of the younger Ian Madigan, but the Kiwi played quite deep, in contrast to Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau. And his performance was symptomatic of Leinster's conservative approach.

Under Joe Schmidt Leinster have usually been punching above their weight against the heavy French hitters and, as in their title win in Paris three weeks beforehand, often did so by dint of outsmarting them.

The Leinster outside backs looked sharp in living off scraps, yet as Shane Horgan highlighted on Sky Sports, only once did Leinster take any real risk on the ball on Sunday, namely near the hour mark when they were playing with a penalty advantage and Gopperth risked an intercept with a long flat skip pass for Zane Kirchener to get around the advancing Toulon line.

Leinster’s adventurous approach under Schmidt emanated from him encouraging his players to take risks and in Sexton, who likes to play close to the gain line and challenge those outside him, he had the ideal playmaker.

Plenty of Leinster fans will take the view that Madigan should have started but he hasn’t the big-game experience or perhaps, this season, the confidence and form to have made a discernible difference. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Leinster lost twice to Clermont last season with Schmidt at the helm and Sexton at the wheel, although they came within a kick of drawing away and somehow conjured a bonus point from Clermont’s pummelling at the Aviva a week later.

Power and pace
In truth, timely though last week's meeting with Munster was, until last Sunday Leinster have played nothing like that standard of opposition since then, with the possible exception of Northampton at the Aviva, and Toulon's brew of power and pace was even more potent in their own citadel.

Perhaps this explains the 26 missed tackles. From the vantage point of the cheap seats, many of these seemed to be from players going too high, or being caught slightly out of position and being forced to make the tackles one-handed. But even chop tackling was proving tricky against the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud, Dannie Rossouw and company. It is doubtful any team in Europe would have beaten Toulon in this form.

Leinster chose not to walk the gauntlet of the corridor formed by the home fans congregated outside the ground 90 minutes before kick-off. Instead, the visitors took the equivalent of the tradesman's entrance and walked across an empty ground to their dressingroom. It was in stark contrast to Mick Galwey taking the Munster players into the in-goal area where the Toulouse fans were congregated in the steaming Stade Chaban Delmas for the 2000 semi-final for the Munster warm-up.

Certainly Toulon brought more intensity to the early exchanges, although that being said, it was still six-all at half-time.

Perhaps there was a fatigue factor, mental as much as physical. Leinster and Toulouse were bulk suppliers to Ireland and France in the Six Nations, Toulon and Munster were far from such, much to the latter’s annoyance, if not the former.

As magnificent as Munster wear in mauling Toulouse, they have already been installed as 3 to 1 and eight-point underdogs against Toulon’s collection of well-paid galacticos.

Unlucky Munster
Once again Munster have been cursed with the draw. This is their 11th semi-final, and their seventh of nine away draws to French sides, taking them to Bordeaux, Lille, Beziers, Toulouse, Dublin, Coventry, San Sebastien, Montpellier and now Marseilles.

How many more finals might they have reached had the draws been flipped the other way, or if the semi-finals were over two legs?

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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