Aviva Stadium, 3.30pm
Jérome Garcès (France)
Leinster 10/11, Saracens 10/11, Draw 25/1
It’s 11 months since Leinster fell just short to Clermont Auvergne in a Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon and the failure to earn a shot at the English giants seemed to register just as high on his barometer of disappointment as the impending absence from the decider.
“We would have loved to have seen how close we could have gotten to Saracens and we don’t get the chance now, which is really gutting,” said the out-half in the hours after a five-point loss to the Top 14 side in France.
Truth is, Leinster would have faced a difficult task in overcoming Mark McCall’s men in Edinburgh. Saracens’ performance in seeing off Clermont in the final, allied to Leinster’s loss to Scarlets in the PRO12 semi-final, suggested there was still a significant gulf between the pair.
That gap seems to have narrowed considerably since. It may even have been eliminated. Sarries have stumbled this season. Leinster have kicked on with their crop of youngsters blossoming and the additions of Scott Fardy and James Lowe.
Stuart Lancaster’s influence has taken deeper root, too.
“It would have been good to have had them up in the final,” said Sexton ahead of Sunday’s last-eight clash in Dublin. “That was a big disappointment… but we learned a lot and we need to take some of the lessons from that game, in particular, into this week.
If you want to win the European Cup again you are going to have to beat Saracens at some stage, so there is no better time than to get them at home in the quarter-final. It is going to be a huge challenge. I don’t think they will have any fear, based on what they did last year.
When he talks of “what they did last year”, he is referring in the main to Saracens’ ultra-clinical and effective display in the Aviva Stadium against Munster when they won the European semi-final on a resounding 26-10 scoreline.
It’s an experience Sexton believes will stand to the back-to-back European champions who, he suggested, thrive in such hostile environments thanks to their ‘us against the world’ approach to life.
Like Leinster, they’ll be better for the return to the ranks of their Test contingent, post-Six Nations. Whether they will have George Kruis and Owen Farrell available for the weekend remains to be seen, however.
Both are doubts due to injury and, though Sexton might be eager for a crack at the current champions, he wouldn’t feel the achievement was diluted if Leinster found themselves contemplating a semi-final, having accounted for a Sarries team without Farrell.
“Not really, no. If we get a win, I’d be pretty happy. They have an outstanding backup in [Alex] Lozowski. He has played for England numerous times and impressed when he has played. He did pretty well against Harlequins last week.
Look, any team in the world would miss Owen, whether it is at 10 or 12. You don’t get nominated for world player of the year for nothing. He has been outstanding for the last 24 months and I’m sure they are desperate to have him back.
“If we get a win on Sunday, we don’t mind who we are playing.”
Sexton’s eagerness for the game seems to contrast with his mindset two weeks ago, when he was feeling the strain of expectation ahead of Ireland’s Grand Slam shot at Twickenham. He spoke after that game of what had been a “weird, horrible” build-up.
“I probably didn’t express that right. It was a tough build-up to it. We had the strange situation of knowing we were going to lift the trophy, but what you really want isn’t the trophy, it’s that bit of history, the Grand Slam. So, it was a very strange week.
“This week, the closer the game gets — it’s still only Monday and it’s a Sunday game — but we are desperate to get back to those big European games and this is one of them, to try and stand out and get to another final.
There is internal pressure that is driving us, definitely. This team wants to create its own bit of history, in terms of a lot of the guys who had that success have moved on now and there are only a few of us left. We want to start our own little chapter in Leinster’s story.
Actually, there are more than ‘a few’ left from the province’s glory days.
Sexton is just one of 10 players who featured on the day they claimed their third Heineken Cup title, against Ulster in 2012, still on the books. Over 46,000 people have already declared their intent to be there on Sunday as they bid to return to those heights.