Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Sexton sat out yesterday's session.
# brutal honesty
Sexton: There are things wrong with the environment that need a long time to fix
The out-half says Leinster are still nowhere near where they want to be but finishing the season with silverware may accelerate the process.

WHEN JOHNNY SEXTON left Leinster at the end of the 2013 season, he departed a club riding the crest of a wave.

The province had established themselves as kingpins of Europe, winning three Heineken Cups in four years, under the tutelage of Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt.

There was success domestically, too, with three Pro12 titles as the RDS trophy cabinet began to bulge. Leinster Rugby had never known such times of prosperity.

But by the time he returned from Racing 92 two years later, that winning mentality entrenched in the environment had slowly evaporated.

The pillars of those sides had moved on and a new head coach – a rookie in Leo Cullen – had just been installed to revive the club’s fortunes after one barren season under Matt O’Connor.

The walls of Leinster’s headquarters in UCD, with framed pictures of bygone successes, inspired by O’Driscoll, Cullen and Elsom, serve as a reminder of those glory days – but at the moment those indelible occasions in Edinburgh and Cardiff feel like a distant memory.

Rory Scholes and Luke Marshall with Johnny Sexton Morgan Treacy / INPHO Sexton is still hurting from Saturday's result. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

And Sexton’s appraisal of the current set-up is brutally honest.

“It’s not the first time this season we’ve had a defeat like that which is probably the most disappointing thing,” he says of the weekend’s alarming 30-6 defeat to Ulster.

“When you come off the back of a defeat like that, it hurts and you’ve got to quickly put things right and that’s what we’re going to try this week but if we go and produce a great performance this week it doesn’t fix everything.

“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.

“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.”

Leinster’s season has been nothing if not inconsistent. Sexton’s, and a host of other players’, availability has been limited owing to international commitments and the dynamic of the squad has regularly changed.

Failure to get out of their Champions Cup group tells its own story but for a team of Leinster’s calibre, the performances haven’t been consistently up to the required standard.

That said, Cullen’s side have managed to get themselves in a position where victory in their final game of the regular Pro12 season will secure a home semi-final.

Johnny Sexton James Crombie / INPHO Sexton has featured in just seven Pro12 games this term. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Would silverware cover up the cracks and act as the stimulant for Leinster’s revival?

“I don’t know,” Sexton replied. “If we win silverware does it cover up some of the problems that we have or flaws that we have in our game, I don’t know.

“We still want to win silverware, it’s important that we do win it, everyone in the environment is doing everything to win it and we’re desperate to win another trophy but we know that we’re nowhere near where we need to be if we want to get back to the top of Europe and consistently be the best side in the Pro12.”

The out-half, who returned to the Leinster side and scored the visitors’ only points in Belfast on Saturday, sat out Monday’s open training session at the RDS.

Sexton wasn’t included in forward coach John Fogarty’s injury list from the weekend but after a long season, the 30-year-old is being managed carefully by the province.

As he addressed the media, everything about Sexton’s demeanour suggested the abject showing against Ulster, and the manner in which Leinster surrendered so easily, still rankles with him.

“When you look at the scoreline, it’s a pathetic scoreline, we lost 30-6 against one of our biggest rivals,” he continued. “When you sit down and watch the game again, it was a bit closer than the scoreline suggests but at the same time parts of our game weren’t good enough and we need to improve.

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Leo Cullen Ryan Byrne / INPHO Leo Cullen oversaw a light team session yesterday. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I don’t know whether it was a little bit of that as well, guys looking at the Connacht match and when they lose it means we have a semi-final and if we win this week it means we have a home semi-final. I don’t know whether guys looked at that [Connacht result] on Friday night and mentally switched off a little bit, you have to ask every individual but it’s too hard to say.

“Now it’s cup rugby and we’ve got to win against Treviso and we’ve got a chance of a home semi-final and that’s where we wanted to be at the start of the season. Performance wise it hasn’t been good enough yet but we have to turn it around pretty quick.”

With so much at stake on the final day of the season, Leinster have been dealt a favourable hand with Treviso the visitors to Dublin. There are far stiffer challenges in the Pro12 but Sexton insists the Italians won’t roll over like they may have done in previous years.

While Leinster will be pushing for a top two finish, Treviso have their eyes on that coveted Champions Cup berth with just one point currently separating themselves and Zebre.

And as Sexton says, they’ll have no shortage of incentive to play the role of party poopers on Saturday.

“In years gone by you could argue this would have a been a much easier fixture because they have nothing to play for but now they’re coming over with almost jobs on the line because if they qualify for the Champions Cup contracts can depend on it.

“So we’re going to be up against a team who are going to be really fired up and hoping to achieve something themselves.

“A home semi isn’t the be all and end all but it’s important you try and get a home semi-final for your supporters as much as anything. They come out week in, week out and to give them another day out, hopefully the weather can be like what it was at the weekend and you start to see some better rugby being played.

“It’s important to get a home semi-final for the club and everyone associated with it.”

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