Leinster get the job done, but Johnny Sexton suffers fresh injury blow

Castres 24 Leinster 24: Leinster lost Jonathan Sexton to injury last night but just about held out for a draw in a six-try thriller that all but guarantees them a Champions Cup quarter-final home tie when the competition resumes in early April.
Leinster get the job done, but Johnny Sexton suffers fresh injury blow

But to their out-half first.

Sexton has already endured a season of frustrations due to various hamstring injuries but it was a calf concern that ended the Ireland ten’s evening at the start of the second quarter and this just a fortnight before the first Six Nations assignment in Edinburgh.

Leo Cullen’s side were made do without captain Isa Nacewa for the majority of the encounter as well, the inspirational full-back making an exit as the first-half ended having entered the game with a dead leg.

A weekend awaiting results elsewhere pans out ahead of them now but, with 23 points in the bag from Pool 4, only a 62-point win for Connacht in Toulouse tomorrow would be enough to deprive Leinster of a Dublin berth come the last eight.

A nervy night then but one that could have ended much worse.

Leinster availed of an early reprieve, Nacewa escaping unpunished for a no-arms tackle on Julien Caminati as Castres punched into the visitors’ 22, and both were prominent again as the game initially swung Leinster’s way.

Nacewa’s grubber gave Leinster the territory and platform to run through the phases shortly after and earn a penalty converted by Jonathan Sexton. Then Caminati knocked a brilliant Garry Ringrose pick-up back into the path of Robbie Henshaw who sprinted over from his own half.

Sexton’s kick made it 10-0 after as many minutes.

So far so good, but only to a point.

Leinster had already dropped a ball here and butchered a pass there and it was a pair of missed tackles by Sexton and Devin Toner on full-back Pierre Berard and scrum-half Antoine Dupont that allowed the nine sneak in for a poacher’s try.

Worse was to follow with Sexton making for the sideline.

Ireland will miss him if he sits out any part of the Six Nations but Ross Byrne was on in his place only a few seconds here when he kicked through a clever worm-burner that Rory O’Loughlin would have converted into five points only for the lunging tip of Berard’s boot.

It was all entertaining stuff but not of the kind Leinster needed. Castres were enjoying the staccato, unpredictable nature of the evening as the momentum and field position swung back and forth and Juilien Dumora had them level on the half-hour with a penalty.

And then it got worse.

Steve Mafi was creating all sorts of problems with his powerful running at No.8 and it was on the back of two of his bursts and a slipped tackle by Ringrose on Florian Vialelle that David Smith motored in on the tramline for Castres’ second try.

Dumora’s extra two made it 17 points unanswered for the hosts and the sense that this may not be Leinster’s evening was only elevated when Nacewa was forced off three minutes before the interval and Byrne missed an admittedly difficult penalty to stop the rot.

It was their good fortune, then, that the inability to tackle was proving endemic to both sides. It was a painfully weak couple of efforts on Adam Byrne just after the restart that allowed the wing make metres in the 22 from an attacking scrum and that allowed Henshaw under the posts.

Honours even again, this time at 17-17, with Ross Byrne’s conversion.

Try as they might though, Leinster couldn’t engineer anything approaching the dominance they needed to end Castres’ interest for good and the manner in which the Top 14 side dusted themselves down and raised the stakes again was impressive.

Leinster made their tackles this time. Problem was there just too many to make and there was a sense of the inevitable when Smith spotted a fatal gap in the line under the posts after an age spent pounding away.

Again, the five points became seven.

There was no telling which way this one would fall but the odds seemed to be in Leinster’s favour when full-back Berard was sinbinned just past the hour for blatantly killing the ball after a try-line tackle on Jack McGrath.

Dan Leavy heightened the punishment in the very next play with Leinster’s third try and the game’s sixth before Ross Byrne took it to 24 apiece.

Both sides had the chances to win it after that.

Leinster’s opportunity came with a quick counter and a booming kick that evaded Rob Kearney and Ringrose with not a defender in sight but it was mostly backs to the wall for the province from there to the end which they met under siege on their line and with Mike McCarthy in the bin.

It was that close.

CASTRES OLYMPIQUE:

P Berard; J Caminati, A Taumoepeau, F Vialelle, D Smith; J Dumora, A Dupont; A Tichit, B Mach, D Kotze; V Moreaux, R Capo Ortega; Y Caballero, A Bias, S Mafi.

Replacements:

L Jacquet for Moreaux (18-25 and 70); T Combezou for Taumoepeau (36-40 and 70); M Lazar for Tichit and D Tussac for Kotze (both HT); J Jenneker for Mach, J Seron for Dupont and A Jelonch for Bias (all 62); B Urdapiletta for Dumora (63).

LEINSTER:

I Nacewa; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O’Loughlin; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, R Strauss, T Furlong; R Molony, D Toner; J Conan, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

Replacements:

R Byrne for Sexton (22); R Kearney for Nacewa (37); J McGrath for Healy and J Tracy for Strauss (both 48); D Leavy for van der Flier and J Gibson-Park for L McGrath (both 62); M McCarthy for Molony (76).

Referee:

G Garner (RFU).

Champions Cup:

Montpellier 26 Northampton 17.

European Rugby Challenge Cup, Pool 5:

Edinburgh 49 Timisoara Saracens 3.

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox