Sexton’s masterclass ensures Nacewa bows out on a perfect note
Leinster prove their status as the best team in Europe with a swashbuckling display
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa lifts the trophy as he celebrates victory in the Pro14 final over Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium, his final game for the province. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Leinster 40 Scarlets 32
And so all that remains to be achieved is a first series win against one of the Southern Hemisphere big three since 1979. As it is, Leinster completed the most successful regular season in both the history of Irish rugby and the province in a manner befitting the best team in Europe.
So it is that for the likes of Tadhg Furlong (24 wins out of 24 games), James Ryan (21 games), Johnny Sexton (19 games) and Robbie Henshaw (15 games), this season has yielded a 100 per cent winning return. And at the heartbeat of both Leinster and Ireland has been Sexton who, at 32, is probably playing the most complete rugby of his career.
Here he was the hands-on, orchestrator-in-chief of vast swathes and vital stages of this final. Entering the last minute of the first half, Leinster’s 14-11 lead was a slim return for their superiority, the Scarlets having responded to the 22-phase try finished by Devin Toner with a 15-phase try for the first of Johnny McNicholl’s hat-trick.
It looked like Leinster might have to settle for that. Enter Sexton. First, he launched a steepling up-and-under which Leigh Halfpenny couldn’t gather. From the scrum, Sexton crosskicked perfectly to James Lowe and when McNicholl illegally played the ball on the deck, with 41 minutes gone Sexton (having taken over the captaincy when Isa Nacewa hobbled off) opted to kick the penalty to the corner.
Sexton did so again when the first maul of a Toner take was brought down and then took Luke McGrath’s blindside pass to fix McNicholl and complete the softest of no-look, try-scoring tip-ons to Lowe. He then faded the conversion from the left-hand touchline with the breeze to make it 28-11 at the break.
Ten minutes into the second half, when the Scarlets had somehow repelled Leinster, Sexton did his wraparound with Garry Ringrose and Scott Williams caught him around the jaw with his shoulder. Sexton stayed down, and then stood on that spot, not budging until the video review confirmed the penalty, as Williams ran past and exchanged some verbals with him, as did Rob Evans.
When will they ever learn?
As well as being the complete running, kicking and passing outhalf, at his very core Sexton is an arch competitive animal, and all Williams and Evans succeeded in doing was to further provoke him. He duly drilled the penalty 50 metres into the corner, and from Ryan’s take Sean Cronin spotted Ken Owens having to join the maul from the blindside and scooted over.
Sexton walked back toward the 22 with the ball in his left hand, but his head turned to glare at Williams before, naturally, fading the conversion from the right hand touchline to bisect the posts again. Take that. Game over.
“You see what he does on the field,” said Leo Cullen afterwards, “big moments in the game on half-time, like kicking those sideline conversions. It’s just another nail into the Scarlets and another blow for them, so they know they have a bigger mountain to climb.
“There’s also the bits behind the scenes, how he drives standards every day. That’s not just the players, how he drives the standard of the coaches,” he added, with a knowing smile, and particularly reflecting on his first difficult season at the helm when Leinster lost five of their pool matches and the prodigal Sexton, back from Racing, could scarcely conceal his frustration.
“There was a lot of reflection, particularly the year when we had a poor year in Europe. We had a lot of conversations behind the scenes about trying to make the place better and what we needed to do.
“Obviously, we went on to lose that Pro12 final against Connacht in Edinburgh and the two semi-finals last season. But for a lot of these guys, they have gone through the season unbeaten. I’m not sure how many of them are, but James Ryan is one, Johnny as well, Tadhg, potentially Robbie Henshaw is another, there might be a couple of others. That achievement alone is pretty spectacular. It’s not like they’re playing low-level games. That’s after the first Test of the Lions, so it’s a pretty remarkable season those guys are having.”
Afterwards, Sexton spoke of the pressure that came with trying to ensure a proper send-off for Nacewa, “arguably our greatest player ever”, and having inherited the captaincy it probably accentuated that sense of obligation.
Fittingly, Sexton having taken his leave, the win was then decorated by a couple of memorable vignettes from Jordan Larmour with that breathtaking, O’Driscollesque, one-handed scoop to gather his own kick ahead, and Joey Carbery doing Hadleigh Parkes like the proverbial kipper with his footwork as the excellent Luke McGrath supplied the try-scoring link for the deserving Jack Conan, who had a huge game.
Then again, that Big Dev, of all people and with a little help from Conan and Dan Leavy, scored the first try was also apt. Toner joked that it was probably his first in about 150 games and he wasn’t far wrong.
While it was his first meat pie since scoring his second Irish try in the second Test in South Africa two years ago, since when he had played 56 games, it was his first in 120 games for Leinster.
His fourth and most recent try for his province, it was his first for Leinster since September 2012 in the season opener against the very same Scarlets.
But more than anything, given he was more of a squad player in the previous three European triumphs, this season will have been the most rewarding of Toner’s career. And for all the young tyros off the province’s production line who have made such a stunning impact this season, it wouldn’t have been possible without the spine of the older heads – Cronin, Toner, Sexton, Kearney and most of all Nacewa.
That’s why it’s been Leinster’s year of all years.
Scoring sequence: 7 mins Sexton pen 3-0; 9 mins Halfpenny pen 3-3; 12 mins Halfpenny pen 3-6; 16 mins Sexton pen 6-6; 25 mins Sexton pen 9-6; 30 mins Toner try 14-6; 35 mins McNicholl try 14-11; 40 (+3 mins) Lowe try, Sexton con 21-11; (half-time 21-11); 54 mins Cronin try, Sexton con 28-11; 59 mins Larmour try 33-11; 65 mins McNicholl, Halpfenny con 33-18; 69 mins Conan try, Carbery con 40-18; 78 mins Kruger try, Patchell con 40-25; 81 mins McNicholl try, Halfpenny con 40-32.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa (Capt), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan. Replacements: Rory O’Loughlin for Nacewa (20 mins), Scott Fardy for Ruddock (57 mins), Jack McGrath for Healy (53 mins), James Tracy for Cronin, Andrew Porter for Furlong (both 60 mins), Joey Carbery for Sexton (64 mins), Jordi Murphy for Leavy (67 mins), Nick McCarthy for L McGrath (72 mins).
SCARLETS: Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steffan Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens (Capt), Samson Lee; Lewis Rawlins, Steven Cummins; Aaron Shingler, James Davies, Tadhg Beirne. Replacements: Will Boyde for Shingler (39 mins), Werner Kruger for Lee (57 mins), David Bulbring for Rawlins (64 mins), Jonathan Evans for G Davies, Tom Prydie for S Evans (both 71 mins), Ryan Elias for Owens, Dan Jones for Patchell (both 72 mins). Not used _ Wyn Jones.
Referee: Stuart Berry (SARU)