Sexton remains Leinster’s North Star in Euro odysseys

Dig around through the entrails of Leinster’s last ten years of European triumphs and there are surprisingly few threads connecting them all.

The organisation was a very different place back in 2009. Home was the Riverview complex down the road from their current purpose-built base in UCD and the mind boggles now to think of elite players sharing digs with regular joes playing tennis and eating cream cakes.

The RDS had yet to be supplemented by the stands that now hug three sides of the pitch and it goes without saying that very few of the men who were front of house then are on the books now.

 Michael Cheika was head coach. Leo Cullen, the gaffer now, was his captain.

The province has contested six European deciders in this spell — five European Cups and a half-forgotten Challenge Cup final against Stade Francais in 2013 — and only one man has been named in the starting line-up each time.

A case of the mumps sidelined Rob Kearney for the first Heineken Cup success, in Edinburgh against Leicester Tigers, and Cian Healy had to do with a spot off the bench for that Challenge Cup win six years ago in Dublin.

All of which leaves Jonathan Sexton as the one player pulling all those strings together.

That seems right. Kearney and Healy have been immense in their own right, but Leinster’s only real fallow period in Europe kicked in when their out-half left for a two-year furlough in Paris. That was no mere coincidence.

Sexton isn’t just a world-class operator. He is their talisman, their weather vane and their conscience. It was him who openly questioned the team culture on his return to Dublin when questions were being asked if a province would ever again win a European Cup.

What we forget is that Sexton as we know him almost didn’t happen. 

Scroll back that ten years again and he was standing outside the dressing-room in Murrayfield after the final whistle and reflecting on how close the bond between player and club came to being broken.

The nadir had come in Castres the previous December when Cheika’s patience with the talented but unproven 23-year old snapped. When the sides emerged after the interval, Sexton was replaced by an unfit Felipe Contepomi who hadn’t played for six weeks.

“At that stage I thought I had played my last game for Leinster,” Sexton admitted in Scotland after claiming that first title. “I thought my Leinster career was over.”

It was that close. Perpignan were known to have shown an interest. It could have been au revoir.

Munster in Croke Park has gone down in history as the moment it all turned for him. And for Leinster. 

What people tend to forget is that Sexton had put in an exceptional second-half shift against Glasgow Warriors in Dublin a week earlier, but the tale of catharsis still stands.

He has faced difficult times since.

The 12-week absence in the 2012-13 season, when he was stood down due to concussion concerns, ensured there was a massive focus on him when he returned from the cold to face France in the Six Nations. He passed that test.

Four years later and it was his form rather than fitness that was under the microscope after poor back-to-back displays, the first for Leinster against Scarlets in a PRO12 semi-final and the latter for the Lions against a New Zealand Provincial Barbarians selection.

Lions tours tend to turn molehills into mountains but it’s worth remembering how his selection alongside Owen Farrell for the second Test, in Wellington, was branded a ‘huge risk’. He passed that test, too. As he does. And as he did again against Toulouse last month.

Perplexingly poor against Wales in Cardiff, and demonstrably tetchy in the previous months, he addressed his frustrations in an interview with Virgin Media in the wake of an Ireland win in Rome that is best remembered for his tantrum with a towel on the way off.

“You don’t always get it right, but that’s part of the job. When you care about it, you can let it boil over. There have been moments where I could have been better, but again you’re so interdependent on the team being good and I said that all along last year.”

That last point is worth stressing. Gordon D’Arcy made much the same observation prior to Leinster’s semi-final defeat of Toulouse and, lo and behold, Sexton shone on the back of a superb collective display from his pack.

Achieve anything close to parity against Saracens up front today and we will be able to take accurate measure of one of the most eagerly-anticipated match-ups.

Which this mouthwatering final has to offer: his strategic contest with Farrell.

Six years separate them but little else of note. Sexton and Farrell are the living, breathing embodiment of the modern ten: brilliant tacticians, superb kickers and team leaders whose appetite for the physical side of rugby can verge on the foolhardy at times.

Robbie Henshaw has seen both up close. A teammate of Sexton’s with Leinster and Ireland, the centre played alongside Farrell with the Lions in one game on that 2017 tour and obviously spent considerable time int he team environment for the duration of that tour.

“He’s a similar character to Johnny in terms of how he runs the game and he’s pretty demanding,” he said when asked to compare the two. “He’s a good leader so he’s pivotal in Sarries’ attack. He really drives them on in terms of their structure and their game plan.

‘I suppose Johnny’s older isn’t he? No, they’re two class players. Funny you mentioned the tour in 2017 with the Lions, they were probably the two closest players as well on that tour. They were always talking tactics and rugby. They were close.”

Sexton can’t go along with the head-to-head narrative publicly but he wouldn’t be human — he wouldn’t be Sexton — if the competitive animal in him didn’t welcome the challenge to outshine a man who, lets not forget, was Gatland’s initial choice in New Zealand two years ago.

And his record in these games is remarkable. His tour de force against Northampton in 2011 stands out from the five Euro finals played to date but he spent most of the 2009 decider assuring his teammates that the win was predetermined and that there was no need for concern even as they fell 16-9 behind.

Bernard Jackman praised his ‘liathroidi’ after that game. He’s never been short of those.

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