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'Of all the players I have coached, he is probably the best'

Johnny Sexton was at his masterful best on Saturday, guiding Leinster to a first Pro14 title in four years.

IN CONJURING YET another superlative display, running through the full range of rugby’s virtues, Leinster again displayed why they have become the complete team, further embellishing this dream season with a historic double.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates after the game Sexton was man of the match on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Another performance of pace, precision and power — one of quality, brutality, ruthlessness and unrelenting physicality — meant victory over Scarlets was inevitable, and the manner in which they’ve dismissed the challenge of so many sides, in different ways, this season has been nothing short of exceptional.

To become the first team to lift both the Pro14 and Champions Cup in a single campaign is a remarkable feat by a special group of players, and a fifth league crown moves the province out on their own at the top of the Pro14 charts.

The scenes at full-time on Saturday may not have been as emotionally-charged as the ones we saw in Bilbao, but as Leinster’s year scaled rarefied heights at the Aviva Stadium, the celebrations spoke volumes of how much the double meant to this group.

Ever since stitching a fourth European star to the crest, the players had spoken with focus and hunger about finishing the job and ensuring there would be no repeat of the two missed opportunities which continued to weigh heavy on those who were involved in 2011 and 2012.

Johnny Sexton featured in those final defeats to Munster and Ospreys and for all the talk of the irrepressible James Ryan, the outstanding Dan Leavy and a new cohort of wunderkinds, the experienced heads were key to Leinster’s success this term.

The out-half was again outstanding on Saturday, pulling the strings behind a dominant pack and guiding Leinster to victory before receiving a standing ovation on the 63rd minute when he was given a breather with the game won.

Sexton may have only been on the pitch for an hour but he had left an indelible mark on the final, putting on a masterclass in the pivot and treating us to the whole gamut of his world-class game.

Not only did he kick 13 points, but the 32-year-old was the architect of everything Leinster did well, displaying his wonderful range of passing, unleashing his devastating kicking game on the Scarlets back three and combining anger with composure to see Leinster over one final hurdle.

There was the perfectly-weighted up-and-under in the build-up to Devin Toner’s opening try, or the crossfield kick and quick hands to send James Lowe over in the corner in those crucial championship minutes when the clock had struck red.

His touchline conversion from this near side turned Leinster’s three-point lead into a much greater buffer at half-time, as he hammered a nail into the Scarlets coffin.

Sexton wasn’t done yet, though, as he picked himself off the turf after Scott Williams caught him high to ping the penalty deep into Scarlets territory with unerring accuracy.

Leinster v Scarlets - Guinness PRO14 Final Lancaster and Sexton with the silverware. Source: Sportsfile via Getty Images

From there, the forwards did the rest, bulldozing their way towards the line, allowing Sean Cronin to latch off the back of the maul and crash over, with the out-half nailing the conversion from another tight angle.

Leinster at their brilliant best, and Sexton was at the heart of it.

“Of all the players I have coached he is probably the best and I have obviously coached some pretty good players with England,” Stuart Lancaster said afterwards.

“His ability to see the game, his knowledge of the game and his ability to inspire others to get the best out of them, his desire to achieve things…it’s a challenge but I love the challenge.

“There were some massive moments in the game that he contributed to. The James Lowe try on the short side was exceptional with his hands and the vision to see it. The kick to the corner for the maul try was a huge, huge moment. The conversion of the try on half-time.”

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Lancaster explains: “It’s his knowledge, a challenge in a good way. He has been coached by great coaches and he is always wanting to get better. When I came in I brought in some different ideas for him to think about which he has been broad minded enough to accept. And his game has developed accordingly. His drive to be the best that he can be is what sets him apart.”

The reception Sexton received when he was replaced by Joey Carbery was testament to his influence, and then again when he was announced as man of the match, the roof came off the Aviva Stadium again.

His worth to this team cannot be underestimated and the leading role he has played in both Ireland and Leinster’s success this season is worth noting over and over again, particularly when you think his form was questioned towards the end of last season heading to New Zealand.

Since the first Lions Test last summer, Sexton has won all 19 of the games he has been involved in for Ireland and Leinster and his form has been absolutely pivotal in everything that has been achieved this season.

“Everyone is delighted. It’s been a tough season, a long season,” he said, with another medal around his neck.

“To do the double off the back of the Six Nations success is a dream come true.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates with fans after the game Sexton says he will look to quickly refocus ahead of the summer tour of Australia. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I was thinking beforehand 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 one Challenge Cup) but only had two league victories and we’ve left four behind us.

“That weighed on me heavily and we’ve learned a lot.”

Sexton continued: “One year, 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.

“We spoke about that — wanting Isa (Nacewa) 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.”

While the Leinster squad have been able to enjoy the end-of-season celebrations, the focus for Sexton and many of his team-mates will quickly turn to Ireland’s tour of Australia when Joe Schmidt’s squad convene in Carton House.

For now, however, Sexton will allow himself to savour a dream double.

“For the next couple of days anyway, we’re definitely going to enjoy it. What we have achieved has been remarkable,” he added.

“Like I said, to come off the back of the Six Nations and to stay motivated, everyone staying on top of their bodies, and to stay motivated to come back and do well for the club has been outstanding.

“You do have to enjoy it. We’re all delighted in there. It will take a couple of days to sink in I’m sure but it’s been an incredible season.”

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Ryan Bailey

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