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Analysis: Johnny Sexton's combative class shines for Leinster once again

The 32-year-old was superb as his side claimed their Guinness Pro14 title.

WE CAN’T BE sure what exactly Johnny Sexton says to Scott Williams after hammering into the Scarlets centre in this double tackle with Tadhg Furlong, but we can be fairly certain that it’s not too friendly.

Hit

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Having initially looked to aggressively strip the ball in the tackle, Sexton takes the opportunity to fire off a few words at the grounded Williams in what is one of the latest indicators of his fiercely competitive spirit.

Sexton was, once again, a beacon of decision-making and skill-execution class for Leinster in Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 final win over the Scarlets, but his combative approach is as much of a strength for him as those technical and tactical qualities.

The Ireland out-half’s character has been a key driver in Leinster’s return to the top of European rugby and it was fascinating that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster both spoke post-match about how Sexton challenges the province’s coaches as much as he does his fellow players.

Of course, in between being high-tackled by Williams and James Davies in the 50th minute – there were words then too – and the incident above, Sexton provided a stunning line kick to give Leinster the platform for their fourth try through Sean Cronin.

LK

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Sexton’s line kicking is among his many outstanding skills and the fact that he played such an integral part in giving Leinster a platform to score is typical.

What’s also typical is Sexton’s ability to provide an aggressive streak for his team but then instantly switch his red head to a blue head, saving the red head for later.

One moment, darting harsh words at Williams after the high tackle.

The next, composing himself to eke out every last inch in his kick to touch.

Standard Sexton.

Kick pressure

Sexton’s touch finders are far from the only element of his kicking repertoire, which we saw used to impressive effect in Dublin on Saturday.

With Leigh Halfpenny returning from an injury lay-off, Leinster clearly felt they could pressure the usually-reliable Welsh fullback in the air and Sexton’s kicking allowed them to do so.

Five times in the first half, Sexton launched towering garryowens into the Scarlets’ backfield.

While Steff Evans defused one of the bombs and Leinster were unlucky to knock-on another, they regained possession on three of Sexton’s hanging kicks.

Bomb3

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We get an example of the torment of Halfpenny in the clip above, with Rob Kearney doing superbly to beat the Welshman in the air.

The kick from Sexton is a thing of beauty.

Firstly, the out-half ensures his kick is going to land in front of the Scarlets 22, ensuring Halfpenny doesn’t have the comfort of planning to call for a ‘mark’.

LH

Secondly, and just as importantly, Sexton’s kick has a hang time of more than four seconds.

Above the four-second mark is generally what kicking teams will aim for if their intention is to make a kick contestable and Sexton fulfils that criteria here, allowing Kearney time to cover the ground between himself and the landing point of the kick.

Kearney gets off the ground, coming onto the ball, and he wins the contest, with Leinster going on to score three points after earning a penalty in this possession.

In the final regular minute of the half, with Leinster looking set to head into the break 14-11 ahead, Sexton repeats the trick.

LH1

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This time, Sexton gets a full five seconds of hang time on his garryowen, giving Halfpenny what feels like an eternity to think about the chasing line that is coming his way.

While Leinster don’t manage to get a player into the air to make it a physical contest, Halfpenny’s misjudgement of the kick – he gets ever so slightly in front of the landing point – leads to a knock-on.

Leinster get what looks like being one final platform in the half.

Kick passing

79 seconds after launching the above garryowen into the low-flying clouds over the Aviva, Sexton produces another crucial kick for Leinster.

Sexy

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This is a clever kick from Sexton, of course, but it’s also a clever set-up from Leinster.

We can see above how number eight Jack Conan passes to the right of the scrum before Luke McGrath reverses to Sexton over on the left of the set-piece.

That initial movement to the right manipulates Halfpenny in the Scarlets’ backfield, initially drawing him across towards that side of the pitch to cover.

Backfield

That obviously delays Halfpenny in reversing to cover back to his right when Sexton receives the ball and kicks.

As Leinster switch back to their left side of the scrum, the Scarlets can see Rory O’Loughlin, Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney offering running threats [red below] outside Sexton.

Wing

Importantly, the three Leinster players are relatively tight to Sexton and that lures Scarlets right wing Johnny McNicholl infield, his concern being that Sexton will look for a flat pass.

It all leaves James Lowe, below, in open space wide on Leinster’s left.

Lowe

Sexton, a true perfectionist, will possibly have been a little disappointed with his kick here.

A flatter arc would mean Lowe doesn’t have to really break stride or slow down to catch the ball, but the rest of us can admire the accuracy of Sexton’s kick.

It gives Lowe a clear one-on-one against Halfpenny and although the Scarlets fullback makes a good low tackle, the Leinster wing pulls off his characteristic tactic of releasing the ball, getting back to his feet and carrying again.

McNicholl is involved in the second tackle and can’t resist the temptation to strip the ball after the contest has gone to ground – penalty Leinster.

Pass assisting

Having popped the penalty into the corner and watched the Scarlets collapse the first Leinster maul, resulting in another kick into the corner, Sexton pounces wonderfully with the clock almost three minutes into the red.

As the Leinster maul has a second attempt to get to the tryline, Sexton and Lowe casually stroll across to the left-hand side, having started in behind and out on the right, respectively.

Switch

Sexton, having spied the opportunity, sends in a few concise and convincing words to McGrath and, as the Scarlets realise too late what’s happening, Leinster strike.

Hands

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The deft handling skill from Sexton is impressive, even in such a basic three-on-two situation.

With McGrath’s arcing run off the maul tying down Samson Lee, Sexton stays nice and square, running at McNicholl’s inside shoulder to ensure he is preserving Lowe’s space and delaying McNicholl from drifting on to Lowe.

Square

Sexton smoothly shifts the ball across his body in one movement, freeing Lowe to finish a try that provides a crucial psychological blow for Leinster just before the break.

Fittingly, Sexton also bends over the touchline conversion for a 21-11 advantage.

Director

The above assist by Sexton was one of his 22 total passes, all of which were positive and accurate.

The 32-year-old’s passing skill has been a major strength for a long time and the fact that opposition teams continue to attempt to hit him just as, or after, he passes the ball speaks volumes of the threat of his playmaking.

Pass

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The clip above provides a typical example of Sexton taking a firm hit in order to allow his team to get into a promising position.

Understanding that the Scarlets are coming up with great linespeed, but that there is space wide to his left, Sexton doesn’t run at the defensive line when he receives the ball – something he is so consistently good at.

Instead, this time he catches and passes on the spot, inviting the hit from Rhys Patchell just after Sexton has fired the ball to Lowe in space.

Sexton’s ability to manage his team around the pitch, while also identifying space and opportunity, is close to peerless.

We see one example early in the game against the Scarlets below.

1

Rhys Ruddock is carrying the ball for Leinster [blue] as Sexton [white] is calling the shots in behind play.

Cian Healy [1] and Tadhg Furlong [3] are getting off the ground after being involved in the previous ruck and Sexton calls on them to form a ball-carrying pod to the right of the ruck that is going to form following Ruddock’s carry.

Sexton glances to his right and prompts Devin Toner [white arrow below] to join Healy and Furlong.

2

Further outside Sexton, Jack Conan is sliding infield and looks like he will move to join the ball-carrying pod McGrath, Furlong and Toner are forming.

However, Sexton [white below] calls to Conan [8] and signals for him to shift back out wider in order to provide an option on the next phase of play after Healy carries.

3

Conan responds and shifts back outside Sexton as the Leinster out-half moves up and into the first receiver position.

As he moves, Sexton is also communicating with Sean Cronin [2 below], ensuring the hooker will join Conan in providing a shape around the out-half.

4

Isa Nacewa [12] hangs deeper to provide the back-door option for Sexton on the next phase.

Even as McGrath moves towards the ruck to fire his pass to Sexton, the Leinster out-half is still directing his team-mates.

Sexton [circled in white below] shouts to Dan Leavy [7] and signals with his arm for the flanker to get wider and deeper.

5

With his team-mates now in position and McGrath just about to pass to him, Sexton has a final couple of swift glances up at the Scarlets defence to double-check their positioning.

6

As Sexton receives the ball from McGrath, he is still computing the possibilities.

He has organised things so that Leinster can create space out on their right edge.

Putting it in very basic terms, if Sexton can tie in Ken Owens [signified by the red line below], Leinster have a numerical advantage outside him.

7

We can see Jordan Larmour wide on the right for Leinster, up very flat to Sexton, signalling that he is free to chase a kick in behind the Scarlets.

But Sexton feels that the opportunity is on if Leinster move the ball through the hands and he kick-starts the chain of passes.

10m

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Sexton’s pass is accurate, as is Nacewa’s, and suddenly Leavy – having held the depth and width Sexton demanded – can send Larmour into space down the right.

While the wing doesn’t manage to shred the Scarlets, he makes it beyond their 10-metre line for good Leinster gains.

This example of Sexton organising and directing his team unfolds over the course of under 20 seconds but gives us a sense of the sheer scale of his job in this regard.

With his defensive game such a strength too, Sexton is a complete player.

His kicking, passing and playmaking skills are beyond question and when his combative nature is taken into account too, it’s clear that Sexton is among the finest rugby players in the world.

- This article was updated at 9.28pm to correct ‘diffused’ to ‘defused’.

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Murray Kinsella

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