Sexton and Leinster produce perfect answer for critics

Sexton and Leinster produce perfect answer for critics

Not everyone had faith that Leinster were capable of overcoming the challenge of Toulouse in Dublin and yet the European champions rose to the challenge on Easter Sunday to dispel all doubts and tee up a Heineken Champions Cup final to savour against Saracens.

Unimpressive across four games since the Six Nations, hindered by wholesale chopping and changing to their squads, and with questions over the form and fitness of some of their main men, it was far from blasphemous to feel that this would be more of a trial for them.

Jonathan Sexton hadn’t played in those recent games, but his travails this spring with Ireland, allied to his absence from the Leinster shirt since last December, meant he faced a searching examination of the credentials that saw him named world player of the year in 2018.

It was a test he passed with ease, even if he feels there is more to come.

“Yeah, there’s always more, isn’t there? It certainly wasn’t perfect at times. During the week, I felt like I was cramming for a big exam. I was trying to fit everything in, I was at times trying to do a little too much. You’d think you’d learn with experience not to do that.

Sexton and Leinster produce perfect answer for critics

“It’s different when you don’t have that week in, week out, match fitness. It’s tough and it weighs heavily on you, but it’s better to be fully fit and to be undercooked than to be playing every week and carrying injuries and niggles.”

Gordon D’Arcy had hit back at the flak faced by his former teammate, pointing out that there is little he, or anyone else, can do when playing behind a beaten pack. Leinster’s eight provided him with a much stronger platform here and, lo and behold, he shone.

“Behind the scenes, Johnny is always working hard to drive standards in the group and that’s an amazing quality that he has. There’s never an end point to it.

“Even if there are things we think we can do, well he’ll find other things we can get better at,” said coach Leo Cullen. “That’s what we need as a group. We know we have to be very, very good because at this stage of the competition all the teams are heavily loaded, heavily resourced and everyone is gearing up to trying to win on the big days, to play well on the big days.

“The standard Johnny sets for himself is exceptional and I think it rubs off on everyone else.”

If Sexton drove it forward then there were few passengers in tow. Their three tries came courtesy of Scott Fardy, Luke McGrath, and James Lowe, who claimed the first 14 minutes in.

Lowe could have had two more, one being disallowed for a Jack Conan discretion and another when he spilled inches from the line in contact.

Just as pleasing was the fact that they kept Toulouse tryless a week after the Top 14 side put 47 points on Clermont Auvergne — and conceded 44 — on home soil. Cheslin Kolbe dazzled and darted, but Leinster always managed to pen the tricky Bok back in before too much damage was done.

It was a superb collective effort from a team that had struggled for cohesion in recent weeks and, as ever, when Leinster are on song, some of the individual displays were monstrous. James Ryan, again, Jack Conan, Garry Ringrose: It’s a list that could go on and on.

Stitch all that together and it made for a relatively straightforward day for a Leinster side that trailed only briefly in the wake of Thomas Ramos’ opening penalty.

“Leinster showed a mastery of rugby,” Toulouse joint coach Ugo Mola said afterwards. Jerome Kaino described them as “world-class”.

All of which leaves the province just 80 minutes away from claiming a fifth European title and one that would separate them from Toulouse in the roll of honour. To do that, they will have to overcome a Saracens side high on their equally impressive defeat of Munster.

The sides met in the quarter-final in Dublin last year in a game — as with this one — won with surprising ease by Leinster, but Sexton has been taken aback by the frequency with which the 2016 and 2017 champions have referenced that loss as a motivating factor this year.

This is a meeting they have been eagerly awaiting and one which could define an era.

Sexton and Leinster produce perfect answer for critics

“Did you see the [Munster] game [on Saturday]? It was pretty physical,” said Sexton. “They’re an outstanding side. I’ve heard them reference our game last year as a big turning point for them in terms of them feeling they hadn’t turned up on the day and fired as many shots as they wanted to. That’s what they said. Obviously they will have Billy Vunipola back, who didn’t play last year. He’s such a huge player for them. You flip the switch straight away and start thinking about them. It’s going to be probably the toughest game I’ve ever played with this group.”

LEINSTER:

R Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, S O’Brien, J Conan.

Replacements:

J Tracy for Cronin (34); M Deegan for Fardy (42-51) and for Conan (79); E Byrne for Healy (60); M Bent for Furlong and R Byrne for Sexton (both 66); R O’Loughlin for Henshaw, H O’Sullivan for McGrath, C Doris for Ryan (all 78).

TOULOUSE:

T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kolbe; A Dupont, S Bezy; C Castets, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; R Arnold, R Gray; R Elstadt, J Tekori, J Kaino.

Replacements:

C Baille for Castets, S Tolofua for Kaino, M van Dyk for Faumuina, P Faasalele for Tekori (all 51); M Medard for Ramos and R Ntamack for Bezy (both 54); F Cros for Arnold (60); G Marchand for Mauvaka (62).

Referee:

W Barnes (Eng).

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