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Peerless Sexton drives Leinster's relentless pursuit of fifth European star

The 36-year-old was superb once again as Leinster set up a Champions Cup final against La Rochelle.

Sexton was superb against Toulouse.
Sexton was superb against Toulouse.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WHEN THE TOPIC of Tadhg Furlong’s passing came up, Johnny Sexton couldn’t resist a joke.

Like everyone else, Leinster’s captain will be hoping that tighthead prop Furlong’s ankle issue doesn’t prove to be serious with the Champions Cup final just two weekends away.

And like everyone else, Sexton was impressed with Furlong’s 25-metre pass in Saturday’s semi-final win over Toulouse, one of a few lovely touches he had on the ball before limping off injured after 16 minutes.

“I’m sure it will be part of his new highlights reel now and speculation that he can play 12 for Ireland, is he the best playmaker that we have, and all of this,” said Sexton with a smile.

There’s no doubting Furlong’s qualities as a ball-handler and decision-maker, but Sexton showed once again on Saturday that he remains the conductor supreme of this deeply impressive Leinster team. 

The 36-year-old was superb against Toulouse as he enjoyed something of an armchair ride in the outstanding Leinster attack, invariably making the right decision to pass, run, dummy, or kick. 

He was centrally involved as Leo Cullen’s side scored four tries, Sexton delivering the scoring pass for three of them, but it’s a measure of the man that he was keen to talk about Leinster’s missed chances after the 40-17 victory.

Antoine Dupont’s turnover try off Jamison Gibson-Park’s grubber kick, Robbie Henshaw being caught offside as Leinster’s maul looked set for a close-range try, Gibson-Park being intercepted by Romain Ntamack close to the tryline – Sexton wanted more.

johnny-sexton-and-hugo-keenan-celebrate-with-try-scorer-james-lowe Sexton celebrates one of Leinster's four tries. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“To win a final, like go back to that Saracens final in 2019 – we’re an inch out from their line and we make a mistake and we don’t score. You score there, it’s a totally different game,” said Sexton.

“Today, the game’s not going to be perfect but it’s how we bounced back that pleased me the most. We stayed in the moment and kept going, kept being relentless and that’s what I was most proud of.”

The pain of losing to Saracens in Newcastle in 2019 clearly still sits prominently in Sexton’s mind.

There are the successful European memories of 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2018 on a wet day in Bilbao against Racing 92, but their only European final defeat rankles as he and Leinster aim for their fifth title.

“You look back at all of the finals you’ve been a part of, there’s so much learning, and a lot of Pro14, URC finals – the competition has changed its name so many times I don’t know what it’s called! We’ve been in loads of them, we’ve won loads and we’ve lost loads.

“In Europe, we’ve got a good record but the days when you don’t turn up in the finals, they hurt you and live with you probably more than the victories.

“So you try and get that experience into the group and explain that you need to take the occasion out of it and just really go out and try and play your best.”

The task this time is beating La Rochelle in Marseille on 28 May. Leinster lost away to Ronan O’Gara’s side in the semi-finals last season on a day Sexton was missing due to injury.

They get their chance to settle the score on the biggest stage in two weekends’ time, although La Rochelle also believe they have wrongs to right after losing last season’s final to Toulouse.

johnny-sexton-celebrates-after-the-game-with-his-kids-luca-amy-sophie-after-the-game Sexton with his kids after Leinster's win on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I missed out in the semi-final last year against him,” said Sexton. “Look, he has done really well with La Rochelle, he has built a team there now and they will be hurting [after last season].

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“We’re going to have to be at our very best to get the win.”

Sexton believes the experiences this Leinster team have built since their defeat to Saracens in 2019 put them in a good place for the La Rochelle clash. There are many new faces in the side who weren’t there in Newcastle that day, but the blend of stalwarts and fresher young players feels like a strong one.

As Toulouse found out, Leinster can play at a tempo that is very difficult to live with and their attack under Stuart Lancaster’s coaching has gone to a new level this season with forwards as skillful as Furlong featuring prominently.

“It’s the quality of player that we have and to be able to do things like that… Ross Molony threw a couple of lovely passes out the back as well,” said Sexton.

“But it’s not something that happens by accident, it comes down to the coaches working on it every single day relentlessly.

“Even when you’re not playing, you’re doing extra skills sessions. So it doesn’t just happen or it’s not luck that these players just appear – it’s been years of hard work and good coaching that’s gone into them.” 

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Murray Kinsella

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