Masterful Sexton pulls the strings as Leinster learn how to do the double

‘These young guys are so lucky that they’re surrounded by such good coaches.’

AT THE AGE of 32, Johnny Sexton appears to be better than ever.

Man of the match in Leinster’s Guinness Pro14 final win over the Scarlets yesterday in Dublin, his stunning performance was simply the latest in a long line of world-class displays.

All the talk has been of James Ryan’s incredible run of wins as a professional, but it’s worth noting that the last time Sexton lost a game was the first Test of the 2017 Lions tour.

James Lowe celebrates scoring his sides second try with Jonathan Sexton Sexton celebrates James Lowe's try with the wing. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There was a draw two weeks after that in the final Lions Test, but Sexton has won all 19 of the games he has been involved in for Leinster and Ireland since that clash on 8 July in Eden Park.

Sexton’s form was pivotal to Ireland’s Grand Slam success and he has played a huge part in Leinster’s Champions Cup success and their capture of a historic double yesterday.

“I’m not sure it’s totally sunk in just yet,” said Sexton after Leinster’s 40-32 win over the Scarlets. “It just seems that since the Six Nations every game has got bigger and more important.

“Even today, to top up the Irish Grand Slam and then the European Cup, today was probably the biggest game we’ve played because of what’s gone on before. We spoke about not leaving anything behind and obviously sending arguably our greatest player ever off in the best way possible.”

While Sexton was sad to see that man, Isa Nacewa, go off injured in the 19th minute, he was sure that the retiring great was proud of the effort Leinster put in on his behalf.

Interestingly, the Leinster out-half was also keen to point out that while his team had been playing for Nacewa and the other departing players like Jordi Murphy, that wasn’t the sole focus yesterday.

This season has been one about learning lessons from the past.

Leinster have been in positions to secure the double several times before but failed in the Celtic League/Pro12 final in the weeks after winning European titles.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates with fans after the game Sexton with Leinster fans after their win. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

This time, they learned from previous mistakes.

“All the doubles we’ve missed out on before, three times we’ve had a European Cup final the week before and it’s very difficult to turn around and back things up,” explained Sexton yesterday after the victory over the Scarlets.

“Obviously, this time we had the semi-final [against Munster] which gives you a little bit more of a lead-in to get right physically and emotionally.

“I was thinking before this game that we have left four finals behind us. Some of us have never lost a European final, we’ve won five out of five European finals [including the Challenge Cup in 2013], but only had two league victories and we’ve left four behind us.

“That weighed on me heavily today and we’ve learned a lot. One year [in 2010], Girvan Dempsey and Malcolm O’Kelly were retiring after the Ospreys game and Michael Cheika made it all about them, rightly so because they gave so much to the club.

“But I remember feeling overwhelmed by trying to send those guys off with a victory and we forgot we had to go and play a game of rugby and play well.

“Today, we spoke about that – wanting Isa to finish on a high wasn’t going to be enough, we had to go out and play really well and execute the game plan. I thought we did that really well.”

Key to Leinster’s victory over the Scarlets was, once again, their ability to score in the minutes before half-time, a habit that Ireland found useful in their Grand Slam this year too.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates after the game Leinster had their Champions Cup trophy out yesterday too. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton was instrumental to James Lowe’s try with the clock in the red, first forcing a knock-on from Leigh Halfpenny with a towering garryowen, then finding Lowe with a beautiful kick pass, before Sexton’s slick hands sent Lowe over in the left corner.

Sexton’s ecstatic celebrations with the Leinster left wing said it all.

“I think that just shows what I think of James Lowe,” joked Sexton. “In big games, in big finals, you’ve got to try and score tries. We did it against Glasgow away this season and [for Ireland] against England when I wasn’t on the pitch but the lads scored just before half-time – it has a big impact on the game.

“Then after half-time, we had a simple penalty and we decided to go for the scrum and really try and put the foot on the throat. We had a good move set up and got the ball stripped from us. It’s all outcome-based, your decision is only as good as the outcome.”

Sexton’s thoughts will now swiftly turn to Ireland’s tour of Australia, with the squad set to fly out next weekend for a three-Test series.

But when he returns to Leinster later in the summer, even with Nacewa gone, he will begin to think about how strong a chance the province have of repeating their historic double next season.

The youth of key players like Ryan, Dan Leavy, Jordan Larmour and others is a thrill for Leinster.

“These young guys are so lucky that they’re surrounded by such good coaches and they’re very good people, the players,” said Sexton.

“They’re so eager to learn and absorb all the information and they’re doing it. I wish I had these coaches when I was 19 or 20 and they’re so lucky. At the same time, you have to soak that information up and they’re only going to get better.”

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