Tony Ward: Johnny Sexton shines but Leinster have a new hero after winning Toulouse
In terms of acknowledging their greatness, this current Leinster cohort has been hanging on the precipice for far longer than they would like. Beaten finalists in 2019, quarter-finalists in 2020 and lost semi-finalists in 2021, the hard lessons learned from finishing second to Saracens in the top two and La Rochelle a year ago are ingrained, and what we do experience now, a squad is further a mission.
There is still a huge hurdle to overcome on French soil and while we don’t take anything for granted for a minute, no Irish representative has ever fared better in the final.
What we witnessed at the Aviva on Saturday was a team leading their respectable game and delivering a performance for the ages in a European showdown.
Yes, there were glitches, the scrums springing to mind immediately, but in relation to that, on a stage where getting as close to the whole package as possible really mattered, it was a declaration of collective intent.
It didn’t take rocket science to emphasize the importance of battling the halves after each forward unit had reached the expected level of possession. Possession of the ball was almost split down the middle, with the home side shadowing him 51 percent to 49 percent, but the telling stats beyond that show a 46 percent collision success rate for Leinster compared to less than half (21 percent). cent) to the reigning champion. This is an extremely relevant statistic as it reflects a state of mind and body honed from the injuries of the sobering disappointments mentioned above.
Add to that an astoundingly high pass rate of over 75 percent, recorded by Johnny Sexton in a truly regal performance by a most worthy recipient of the Star of the Match award.
That fight at half-back was just one of many key fights, but when it comes to pragmatic analysis, Antoine Dupont was good but Jamison Gibson-Park (despite an early howl that saw Dupont run three-quarters the length of the pitch for a gifted try ) was even better. Sexton easily won his private fight against Romain Ntamack, the Grand Slam winner directly across from him.
If the current Leinster and Ireland captain keeps the red mist reserved for officials in check, he’s still among the best. In fact, if a Lions team were picked to tour anywhere right now, I defy anyone who could argue that Sexton would be the number one semi-finalist based on his current form and attitude. Ntamack had his moments, but the man in the blue 10 was in a different class.
Right out of the first whistle and with setting an early pace marker, despite such a brave team effort, Leinster showed a different appreciation of creative attacking space than almost anything else in the comparable Munster coaching manual, as witnessed throughout the season at the venue against the same opponent seven days earlier . The arrival of Mikey Prendergast can’t come soon enough.
The loss of Tadhg Furlong was deeply distressing. In this opening quarter, the original all-singing, all-dancing prop produced a variety of attacking passes that any defender on any team would be proud of. But alongside Andrew Porter on either side of Rónan Kelleher and/or Dan Sheehan, he is what Marseille needs most. And yes – that pyrotechnic pass would be very welcome too.
While Sexton handled the star billing, it was one of those rare days for a team where almost every individual could have been included in that frame. From Porter to Hugo Keenan, everyone was at their game. But with James Ryan, both flankers (Josh van der Flier simply has to be Irish Player of the Year), Gibson-Park, both centers (especially Robbie Henshaw on this occasion) and James Lowe, again really outstanding, in the foreground.
But I deliberately left out one name, and that’s Ross Molony. To say the former St Michael and Leinster skipper is an unsung hero would be an insult. This is his time and as the old saying goes, “good things come to those who wait”. Devin Toner brought other and more obvious qualities to the Kesselhaus alongside the hard-working Ryan, but for now Molony is the right player in the right place at the right time, however long it may have taken to find his place.
Yes, he’s rugged and hardworking, but one can’t appreciate the soft and sensitive ball moves that give wise old playmaker Sexton all sorts of extra options to exploit in the white heat of battle.
The cards are falling well too, with a home quarter-final already set in the URC, ensuring that a shadow squad will face Munster next. We have complained in the past about Leinster traveling underpowered, particularly to Limerick for the festive Christmas party, but not a word this time.
Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, Felipe Contepomi and the rest made Irish rugby proud. Nothing is guaranteed in sport – anything can happen any day. A false attack and the best of plans can be shattered, but this compelling evidence puts the Stars in fifth, even on French soil where Leinster have very much to lose.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/champions-cup/johnny-sexton-shines-but-leinster-have-a-new-hero-after-toulouse-victory-41652516.html Tony Ward: Johnny Sexton shines but Leinster have a new hero after winning Toulouse