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'It felt like I was cramming for an exam': Sexton makes seamless return to Leinster jersey
The 10 made his first provincial appearance in 2019, but his influence on Leinster is relentless.

Sean Farrell reports from the Aviva Stadium

JOHNNY SEXTON PLAYED his first match of 2019 for Leinster today, and there were definite shades of 2018 as he helped his province power into the Heineken Champions Cup final.

A combination of international commitments and niggling injuries have meant the reigning world player of the year has not been available to Leo Cullen since the December inter-pro defeat to Munster in Thomond Park.

That result and Ireland’s Six Nations wash-out felt a long time ago as Sexton produced a commanding display to help his side take a 30-12 semi-final victory over Toulouse on a glorious day at the Aviva.

“During the week it felt like I was cramming for a big exam,” Sexton said after playing his first match in five weeks.

Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty Billy Stickland / INPHO Sexton kicking a penalty in the win over Toulouse. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“(I was) trying to fit everything in a little bit too much at times. You think you learn by experience not to do that, but when it’s such a big game and you haven’t been on the pitch for a few weeks…

It’s different not having that week-in, week-out match fitness, it can weigh heavily on you. It’s better to be fully fit and undercooked than to be playing every week and carrying niggles.

“It’s good to get the body right and hopefully I can stay good for the rest of the season and the rest of 2019, please God.”

While Leinster’s control of today’s semi-final rarely looked in danger, both Cullen and Sexton noted that improvements will be required ahead of the European decider and the head coach paid tribute to the captain’s role in relentlessly pushing for continuous improvement.

It’s great to have Johnny back in the team. We haven’t had him since December, but behind the scenes Johnny’s always working hard to drive standards in the group. It’s an amazing quality he has,” said the former lock.

Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney celebrate after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s never an end point to it. Even if  we think we’re doing things well, he’ll find other things we can get better at.

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

Cullen will enter next week hoping for a positive medical report on hooker Sean Cronin who was forced off with a calf injury.

Sexton was also down for treatment midway through the second half, but dusted himself down to kick a penalty before Ross Byrne was sent on in his place with 15 minutes remaining. With a first provincial match of the year under his belt, the 10 will surely only improve ahead of the trip to Newcastle.

“There’s always more, isn’t there? It wasn’t perfect,” Sexton said in reference to both his personal performance and the collective team effort.

“At times we played really well. In a semi-final there’s always going to be times when teams have a purple patch.

“There were times we got on top of them for a couple of phases and  switched off slightly, let them counter attack us.

“It was very pleasing to hold them try-less is an exceptional effort from everyone.”

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