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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 21 January, 2019

Sexton willing to curb fiery instincts with captaincy as Leinster embrace Scarlets test

Last year’s Pro12 semi-final defeat to Scarlets was a painful lesson for Sexton and Leinster. Today’s Champions Cup semi is the perfect opportunity to show what they’ve learned.

Champions Cup semi-final, Leinster v Scarlets. Kick-off 15.30, Sky Sports

“EH, THERE’S LOTS of results that have pissed me off,” says Johnny Sexton with a shrug before his coach mutters a haymaker of a punchline.

“Even the wins.”

Johnny Sexton and Leo Cullen Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Sexton’s fiery will to win has always been a key part of his make-up. Whether it’s his face-to-face celebration at future best bud Ronan O’Gara when he met Munster at this stage of European rugby in 2009 or his last time on a rugby field, there’s rarely a long wait for an example of the number 10′s temper.

His team-mates are usually among the first to offer up reminders of his notoriously ‘cranky’ demeanour, a measure of revenge for all the times they have been read the riot act in front of a full stadium and TV cameras catching body language that requires no expert interpretation.

As captain today, those same instincts that have powered Sexton to the top of European rugby time and again must be quelled and held in check somewhat. At least towards referee Romaine Poite.

When the balancing act was put to Sexton after his captain’s run in the Aviva Stadium yesterday, he adopted a rare sheepish guise as he asked Leo Cullen if he ought to be the one fielding the query.

“It’s a still a work in progress for me,” says the out-half.

“When I’m not captain you don’t have that responsibility of talking to the ref but at times in the heat of battle it can get on top of you.

Johnny Sexton Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You probably saw that in the Saracens game I probably let myself down a bit in terms of, you know, getting a bit angry or agitated by some of the stuff that is happening. Or maybe a decision I see because I’m close to it or I know it’s wrong. It’s just about biting your tongue.

“Now I’ve a responsibility to speak to him in the right way. Like I said, it’s something I’ve had a handful of chances to do with Leinster this year. I’ve done it when Rory (Best) has gone off for Ireland. It’s something I’ve enjoyed but not something I’m overly burdened about.”

But there is a burden about this beast of a Leinster team. From pre-season right up to yesterday, the subject of last season’s lost semi-finals — particularly the 27-15 home defeat to a Scarlets team who played 43 minutes after Steff Evans’ red card — has never been far from the lips of coaches and players.

Before the season kicked off, back when James Ryan was not yet a senior Leinster player (merely an Ireland international), Stuart Lancaster hoped that his influence for a full campaign as senior coach would make all the difference. Espousing the virtues of an extended pre-season period spent focusing on skills, the former England coach candidly bemoaned the team’s apparent insistence on waiting for an opportunity rather than grasping the nettle.

Leinster are back facing the same scenario. However, with precocious new talents within a pack that only has Tadhg Furlong in common with the eight who started last May, the eastern province look ready to feel that sting.

Johnny Sexton Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It’s when he’s asked to equate the shock loss to today’s opponent (who are again cast as heavy underdogs) that Sexton referred to a lengthy list of displeasing results, or “performances” when you count the victories, but the answer to what went wrong in the Pro12 semi-final is as simple as it is complicated.

“A lot. We played badly, they played well. Didn’t do what we were meant to do,” says Sexton.

Liam Williams celebrates Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We didn’t put our best selves out that day and that’s what we have to do tomorrow: play our best and see where that gets us. They beat us well on the day. People thought that might be a one-off and then they went and did the same thing to Munster.

“So they proved, and this season again, that they weren’t flukes. They are a very good side and we know about them now, which is an advantage.”

This isn’t a case of Leinster being ignorant of the threat last time round. It’s common sense to expect a team, particularly a team less accustomed to knockout rugby, to tighten up when it comes to the crunch. Just as Connacht did in 2016, Scarlets were brave and boldly put Leinster and Munster to the sword.

“That’s the brand that they played all season and fair play to them and their coaches for sticking to it and doing it in the semis and the final. Maybe they did catch us by surprise in that game, but then they played very well on the day.”

Of course, key to this Scarlets threat will be their exceptional breakdown work. Ken Owens, John Barclay and James Davies will be central to it all, but the key to keeping red waves rolling is arguably their Leinster lock.

“He’s caused a lot of teams headaches. The blue scrum cap roaming around.” says a smiling Cullen of the man with a Pro14-leading 37 turnovers this season.

Tadhg Beirne Source: Byran Keane/INPHO

“Tadhg has been exceptional for them, very strong over the ball, can be a nuisance in some of the line-out drives. We need to be sure we’re accurate in what we do, so he doesn’t have that impact on the game.”

There must be regret for Cullen that Beirne is routing European rugby in red. His qualities were recognised with the rows he caused on the Leinster training ground by slowing up ball the senior front-liners were keen to use to show off their wares. Circumstances simply fell far sweeter for him in Llanelli than they did during his injury-plagued time with his native province.

“I had a really good chat to Tadhg after the game in the RDS,” relays Cullen, once more highlighting two tense 20-13 and 10-10 outcomes played out while the marquee international names were on Six Nations duty.

“Tadhg is going well. You wish guys well that come through the system. He’s come through the academy, various things didn’t quite go his way in that period, but you’ve got to admire what he’s done since.

“You say that to all the guys. It’s a very competitive group that we have… players will leave the system. You hope they don’t come back to haunt you in the manner Tadhg has. You wish these guys well.”

As Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac notes, it’s hard to assume Beirne would have become the force he is today if he had remained in Dublin. His skill-set is allowed to shine through by this scintillating Scarlets attack.

“I think he’s thriving on the environment, the way we play the game really suits Tadhg,” says Pivac.

“He enjoys getting heavily involved in the game whether it’s with the ball, without the ball, he’s just an immense player who enjoys playing the game.

“He’ll be a player at the end of the season we’ll be sorry to see go, hopefully he’s got a few big performances left with the boys”

And yet despite the breakdown brilliance of Beirne and Davies or the electric wide threat brought by the Scarlets back-line, this is a Leinster team who have not tasted defeat in seven European outings this season.

Scott Fardy and Tadhg Furlong Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Even after losing James Lowe to selection restrictions, Luke McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock due to injury and Jamie Heaslip to retirement, Cullen’s team appear to have all the tools needed to stop Scarlets this time around.

From the redoubtable Ryan in the second row, the hard edge brought by Scott Fardy and Jordi Murphy and Dan Leavy’s ability to make big-game plays at crucial times; this is a Leinster pack built to ride roughshod over all comers on their way towards a final.

If they get there, it will represent a chance to furnish many of these remarkable young talents with their a first medal at provincial level. For Sexton too, the prize on offer is a first non-international trophy since he left for Paris in 2013.

“I didn’t think about it like that, thanks for reminding me,” he says, playing up to his cantankerous caricature.

Every year you win it you think it is easier and easier, but every year you don’t have it it seems to get harder and harder.

“It’s a tough competition to win, especially with the French teams over the last number of years taking it seriously and wanting to win it. We want to get back to a final. That’s our main focus at the minute.”

“(Young contingent) obviously know what it takes now. It was a harsh lesson for all of us – me, Isa – all the guys who hadn’t experienced a semi-final defeat before. So to experience it and realise how difficult it will be to get through it is a positive.

“You don’t always have to lose to win, but it does teach you some good lessons.”


15. Rob Kearney
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Isa Nacewa
10. Johnny Sexton (Capt.)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Scott Fardy
7. Dan Leavy
8. Jordi Murphy


16. James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Jack Conan
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Joey Carbery
23. Jordan Larmour


15 Rhys Patchell
14 Leigh Halfpenny
13 Scott Williams
12 Hadleigh Parkes
11 Steff Evans
10 Dan Jones
9 Gareth Davies

1 Rob Evans
2 Ken Owens (Capt)
3 Samson Lee
4 Tadhg Beirne
5 David Bulbring
6 Aaron Shingler
7 James Davies
8 John Barclay


16 Ryan Elias
17 Dylan Evans
18 Werner Kruger
19 Lewis Rawlins
20 Steve Cummins
21 Aled Davies
22 Steff Hughes
23 Will Boyde

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Sean Farrell

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