'Leinster don't need a trophy to show progress, we want one because we're desperate for success'

The wounds from Sunday’s Champions Cup exit are still raw for Leinster and Johnny Sexton but there are also huge positives to take heading into the final weeks of the season.

BRUTAL HONESTY HAS always been Johnny Sexton’s nature, so when he speaks it’s always with a certain level of substance; his opinions carry weight.

Exactly a year ago, Sexton fronted up to the media two days after Leinster suffered a heavy interpro defeat to Ulster and offered an honest assessment of where the province stood.

Johnny Sexton dejected after the game Sexton reacts at the final whistle on Sunday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There’s plenty of stuff that can’t be fixed over a week, can’t be fixed over a few weeks — things wrong with the environment that need a long time to fix so we know that and we’re working towards that,” he said last May.

“I haven’t been here for the last two years so I can only speak about this season and the time before but I spoke last week about trying to get back to the level we were at and I still think we can get there but we’re a long way off.”

It was a forthright appraisal but also one which suggested the senior players, the likes of Sexton who had been around during those bygone glory days under Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt, would drive for betterment across the board.

A Pro12 final offered Leo Cullen’s men the chance to accelerate the process by ending an up-and-down season with a piece of silverware, but if anything the deficiencies were further exposed in Edinburgh.

This year has been an entirely different story, a progressive and hugely encouraging season during which the winning mentality has returned and the province playing an exciting brand of rugby.

Yesterday, two days after Leinster’s most disappointing defeat of the term as they bowed out of the Champions Cup at the semi-final stage, Sexton fronted up to the media again.

The Ireland international was naturally upset by the result in Lyon, and the manner in which Leinster gave Clermont a 15-point head start, but was very positive in his outlook for a young squad who will take learnings from their campaign.

“Anytime you lose a semi-final it feels like it got away,” he said.

“You can’t give a team like Clermont any type of lead and to give them 15 points was disappointing. Looking back on the video I don’t think we defended poorly, I just think we made some system and individual areas and they capitalised on that.

Johnny Sexton Sexton is encouraged by Leinster's performances this year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There are plenty of learnings for us. We gave a good account of ourselves but if we were good enough we would have won the game. There are still areas we need to improve.”

When asked if that result could prove to be a defining one for this team, Sexton added: “I think so yeah, it could be a game in a few years time after we’ve had a bit of success that we look back on as the game that turned our fortunes as such.

“Coming into the game, we thought the Pro12 final last year may have been that game so it’s hard to know. Only time will tell and we’ve got to keep building year on year.

“Even the small margins, having someone like Cian Healy unavailable; I couldn’t believe he got banned and losing a player of that calibre and Seanie [O'Brien] not getting back, they’re all the small margins you’re dealing with at this stage of the season and if we get all our players back and fit, not to mention Jamie [Heaslip], Rob [Kearney], all these guys, it would make a difference in games like that so I don’t think we’re too far away.”

It’s a contrasting assessment to that of 12 months ago but serves to highlight the significant improvement in Leinster’s performances and indeed results throughout a season which saw them return to the last four of the Champions Cup.

Cullen and his coaching team must take huge credit for the change in fortunes and indeed the style of play with the province embarking on an impressive 12-game unbeaten run before Sunday’s reversal at the Stade de Gerland.

With a home Guinness Pro12 semi-final already assured, Leinster will be looking to go one step further in 2017 and win their first league crown in three seasons and fifth overall when the silverware is handed out at the Aviva Stadium in May.

But Sexton insists they don’t need to lift the Pro12 trophy at the end of next month to validate the assessment that this has been a good season for the province, pointing to the performances as a better indicator of the upward trajectory they’ve been on.

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1306001-e1493131743748-1200x793 Sexton, Jack McGrath and Sean O'Brien yesterday launched the Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Summer Camps. Source: Sportsfile

“The results don’t show the improvements we know we made,” he continues. “We don’t need to win something to show that but we want to win something because we’re desperate for success. We have come along way in a year, that’s pretty obvious and that’s for a few reasons.

“I think the progress is pretty obvious for everyone to see, we don’t need a trophy to show that but we want a trophy for ourselves to reward the effort we’ve put in every single day on the training pitch, the sessions you guys don’t see, you judge us on a Saturday, the amount of effort that goes in and we want to reward ourselves with a trophy for that.

“And reward the supporters for all the support they show us and for everyone who has put in the hard work throughout the year.”

Sexton and Leinster certainly won’t get ahead of themselves and the primary focus is now on Friday’s Pro12 assignment against Glasgow Warriors as Cullen’s men look to get back to winning ways.

The 31-year-old says it’s important, even with a home semi-final secured and a number of players set to be rested this weekend, for Leinster to build up a head of steam heading into the play-offs.

“We need to get back on the winning trail now. The goal is to win four games in a row and everyone’s focused on that.”

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Ryan Bailey

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