Dan Sheridan/INPHO Sexton has previously delivered some of his finest performances in knock-out games.

Sexton primed to lead Racing's Top 14 play-off challenge in Toulouse

The 28-year-old is in action for the Parisians in the knock-out stages of the French league this evening.

AS RACING MÉTRO prepare for this evening’s barrages clash with Toulouse in the Stade Ernest Wallon, they can take comfort in the fact that out-half Jonny Sexton is a man who has thrived in the most important knock-out games club rugby has to offer.

The barrages phase of the Top 14 play-offs essentially involves two quarter-final games, with Toulon awaiting the winner of Racing v Toulouse, while the victor of Clermont v Castres will take on Montpellier in the second semi-final.

Both semis will take place in Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy as the LNR [Ligue Nationale de Rugby] continues its policy of bringing some of the most anticipated games of the Top 14 season to areas of France that have quieter rugby histories.

Last weekend’s 44-10 hammering at the hands of Montpellier means Racing were forced into the demanding task of travelling to take on Toulouse tonight [KO 7.45pm Irish time], with home advantage a more vital factor in France than anywhere else.

Indeed, since the barrages matches were introduced for the 2009/10 season, only one team has won on the road at this stage. The odds are stacked against a Racing success.

At this very stage last season, the Parisian club were 33-19 losers to Toulouse in the Ernest Wallon, but there are some very obvious differences this time around.

Chief among them is Sexton, the chef of this Racing team and a man whose tactical and mental influence has grown amongst the group as the season has progressed. The 28-year-old’s only currency in rugby is trophies, meaning he is built for this stage of the campaign.

Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sexton has scored 177 points for Racing so far this season, including two tries. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Not that one homme alone can win this game for Racing. In that regard, the signs have been positive until last weekend’s thrashing in Montpellier, when Sexton felt some of his teammates “threw the towel in”.

Before that, Racing had lost just once in nine games and, equally as importantly, had finally started to show incisive attacking form. Labit, Travers and Ronan O’Gara rapidly built a superb defence in Paris after joining last summer [only Toulouse conceded less than Racing in the regular season], but Racing had been stuttering in attack for much of the campaign.

Recent months have seen those problems largely forgotten as les Franciliens have broadened their previously kicking-based game plan and finally started to bring more width, offloads and risks into the mix.

Jamie Roberts is suddenly nearing his bruising best as Racing have asked him to straighten up and run directly at the opposition, benefiting from the Welshman’s consistent ability to get beyond the gainline.

Back three stars Marc Andreu [who is injured for this evening's game] and Juan Martín Hernández have enjoyed the increased flow of possession finding its way into wide spaces, while also linking with Sexton more intuitively in open play.

Up front, the likes of Juandre Kruger and Luc Ducalcon have increased their efficiency at the set-piece, as well as getting Racing onto the front foot more often through their ball-carrying.

Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ronan O'Gara has played a key part of Racing's improvements. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

For that increased cohesion, O’Gara deserves major credit alongside les deux Laurents. The former Munster out-half has not only steered the defence this season, but also been integrally involved in skills, kicking and backs coaching.

Last weekend’s setback aside, Racing have finally appeared to be representing something approaching the sum of their parts. And yet, defeat tonight ends their season and ensures they will remain trophyless since 2009 [when they won the Pro D2].

Would that make Sexton’s first season in Paris a failure? Quite possibly in the eyes of the player himself, but a more rounded, long-term view of his transfer to France leads to the understanding that Racing, despite their wealth, would always take a year or more to click.

There is further recruitment to come this summer, with Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen and Casey Laulala among those expected to move to Paris ahead of next season. While the rest of the Top 14 clubs are also likely to add to their squads, Racing will only get better.

That drive for progress is put to one side this evening though, and possibly the coming weeks. Sexton’s own motivation comes from the chance to claim another historic club rugby winners’ medal, meaning Racing can count on him to deliver in Toulouse.

Toulouse: Clément Poitrenaud; Yoann Huget, Florian Fritz, Luke McAlister, Hosea Gear; Jean-Marc Doussain, Jano Vermaak; Cyril Baille, Jaba Bregvadze, Census Johnston; Yoann Maestri, Patricio Albacete; Yacouba Camara, Thierry Dusuatoir, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Christopher Tolofua, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Joe Tekori, Yannick Nyanga, Timoci Matanavou, Gaël Fickou, Akapusi Qera, Yohan Montès.

Racing Métro: Juan Martín Hernández; Adrien Planté, Henry Chavancy, Jamie Roberts, Juan Imhoff; Jonny Sexton, Maxime Machenaud; Julien Brugnaut, Virgile Lacombe, Luc Ducalcon; Juandre Kruger, François van der Merwe; Antonie Battut, Bernard le Roux, Jacques Cronje.

Replacements: Jérémie Maurourad, Eddy Ben Arous, Fabrice Metz, Wenceslas Lauret, Mike Phillips, Fabrice Estebanez, Benjamin Fall, Brian Mujati.

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