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Sexton alone not enough to restore Leinster to right side of 'the fine margins'

The eastern province are becoming accustomed to dogfights, but have the pedigree to be so much better.

FINE MARGINS. THAT’S what rugby fixtures at the elite level come down to.

The ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of missed drop-goals leave you wondering if we might be hailing a perfect away performance from Leinster this morning. Instead, the misses from Rob Kearney, Jimmy Gopperth and Delon Armitage lengthened the exam, raised the stakes and cranked up the pressure until the big error came.

Ian Madigan, Jack McGrath and Jamie Heaslip dejected Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Just as Ian Madigan’s decision to pass long when he had men to spare is not the only factor that caused Leinster’s defeat, neither is it the reason Leinster’s season is on the verge of an early ending.

Leinster will rightly take much credit for pushing the back-to-back champions all the way through 80 minutes of the semi-final and beyond, yet this was the kind of performance that has drawn the ire of supporters all season.

The set-piece and defence was impressive and forced the Toulon error count to swell, but in attack they continued to struggle. In their current form, Leinster are a team who can drag any team, anywhere, in to a dogfight, and too often that includes teams who they should be tearing apart.

Defeats to Scarlets and Dragons (twice) on top of draws against Treviso, Glasgow and Ospreys have left Matt O’Connor’s Pro12 champions eight points adrift of the play-off places. Ospreys need seven points from three games to cut them adrift, assuming Munster and Ulster get the five they need.

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Matt O'Connor Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That’s what is most frustrating about coming up agonisingly short. There is so little opportunity to take that solidity as a base from which to build on.

Ospreys’ run-in — Cardiff (a), Glasgow (h), Connacht (a) — means it is still possible for Leinster to muster a late rally to defend their title. However, a defeat to Ulster on Friday leaves Leinster supporters, and their front-line players, with a full seven months to wait for a game to really get the juices flowing when the Champions Cup makes its post-World Cup comeback in November.

Until then, it looks set to be a period of intense wound licking and praying the Jonathan Sexton’s return will be the match that suddenly ignites all the gunpowder in the Leinster backline.

Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Dominic Ryan dejected Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That is an unbelievable amount of pressure to place on the shoulders of one player. Sexton is used to expectation, sure, but to come back to an environment that struggled without him and be expected to flick the switch is an all-encompassing 24/7 kind of pressure. Lining up a penalty only lasts 40 seconds to a minute at a time, choosing when to break, when to kick and the right pass is split second instinct.

Sexton will hopefully return from the World Cup with his stock higher than ever, but when he pulls on a blue shirt again he’ll be demanding fine margin victories, not complaints, from every last player around him.

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Sean Farrell

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