Sexton back as Leinster bid to ‘turn it on’ for Toulouse

Leinster Rugby Squad Training, Energia Park, Donnybrook, Dublin 16/4/2019 Johnny Sexton. Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

The consensus is that Leinster have not been the same ruthlessly efficient machine in Europe this season as last.

Stuart Lancaster wouldn’t go along with that. The province’s senior coach cut a confident figure this week as he looked ahead to Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse in Dublin.

If Leinster have failed to wow in the same manner this term then it may related to the fact that they went undefeated in claiming a fourth crown last May. They front up this week having already lost to their next opponents and they squeaked past Ulster in the last eight.

“Yeah, I think people’s memories are reasonably short because in the Wasps game (at the RDS last October), we played some outstanding rugby. The first game was probably our best performance of the season.”

Leinster did struggle in their next two outings – a one-point loss in Toulouse and a narrow win away to Bath – but they followed it up with a 27-point win against the English side, a comfortable victory against Toulouse and Wasps in Coventry.

It’s that lucky escape at home to Ulster though that sits fresh in the memory.

Lancaster believes the northern province’s recent results cast a kinder light on that win and he expressed confidence that Leinster can “turn it on” for a big game such as this one.

The likely return to the starting XV of Jonathan Sexton will reassure them that they can do just that. It’s five weeks since the out-half last played, for Ireland in Cardiff, and another five weeks before that since he has seen provincial action.

Pulled from the Ulster game because of a quad strain, the indications yesterday were that he has finally overcome the troublesome injury and is expected to train fully this week with a view to replacing Ross Byrne at ten.

Byrne has been an able replacement, most notably when kicking the late winning penalty against Ulster at Lansdowne Road despite suffering with cramp.

Though it remains to be seen what form Sexton is in when he returns to the box seat.

Irritable at times during Ireland’s unexpectedly traumatic spring – and away to Munster in late December when he last played for his province – he mixed the good with the bad and the ordinary during the Six Nations.

“We had a good talk about the Six Nations with all the Ireland players when they came back into camp,” said Lancaster.

It is important to take the learning from them and upskill them, update them on what we’re doing at Leinster. We did that pretty successfully.

“Johnny’s been in and around the camp the whole time. It’s not like he’s not been here. He has had his chance to get ahead in his preparation for Toulouse, alongside Garry (Ringrose), James Ryan, Jack Conan, the lads who didn’t play at the weekend. He’s very much in leadership mode.”

Leinster’s ambitions have been boosted by the news that Tadhg Furlong looks good to start despite limping off against Glasgow Warriors last Saturday and the confirmation that Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw came through that same game with no ill effects.Neither had played since the first round of the Six Nations.

Add in an encouraging effort from Sean O’Brien as he works his way back to top form after his own lengthy injury issues and Leinster are in a good place in spite of their recent difficulties in the Guinness PRO14 where they have little to play for ahead of the play-offs.

Their run-in to this weekend’s meeting of the only two clubs to have won four European Cups could hardly be more different given Toulouse named a seriously strong XV last weekend when welcoming Clermont Auvergne to the Pink City for a Top 14 battle of the top two.

Ugo Monye’s aristocrats were superb at times and also in winning their quarter-final away to Racing 92 despite playing so long with 14 men. They have lost just twice – once with a second string against Toulon and, before that, to Leinster in Dublin in January - since September. Quite the run.

“To be honest, I was impressed with them before then,” said Lancaster.

“Obviously, the game we lost over in Toulouse was a disappointing one for us. Their ability to score tries in so many different ways, they can overpower you. They can beat you on the counter-attack.

"Their ability to keep the ball alive and generate successions of tries on momentum ... if you look at the rankings of who has made the most line-breaks in the Top-14 it’s Toulouse.

"Who’s made the most metres? It’s Toulouse. Who has the most defenders beaten? It’s Toulouse. They just have an unbelievable chemistry through the team in how they create momentum in attack.

"They have a real solidity in defence as well, which I thought really showed it’s worth against Racing in the quarter-final.”

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