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18th Sep 2018

Analysis: Johnny Sexton’s genius and James Ryan’s growth as a playmaker

Jack O'Toole

There’s only so much that you can take from a 52-10 drubbing in a game that Leinster entered as 35-point favourites, but nevertheless, the PRO14 champions showed during Saturday’s annihilation of the Dragons that their attack is firing on all cylinders.

The domestic and European champions scored 119 tries in all competitions last year and they tagged on seven tries against the Dragons last weekend to take their season total to 14 from their first three games.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen handed Johnny Sexton his first start of the season and the club’s new captain showed no signs of summer rust as he consistently decimated a porous Dragons defence.

Leinster had nearly three times as many carries as the Dragons (91 to 36), which was always going to be favourable for any fly-half, but Sexton was deadly in the Blues attack.

The 33-year-old’s anticipation for where the defence is heading and his feel for where the hole is in the opposition line is almost unparalleled in the PRO14.

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Here we can see the Dragons defenders shoot up on the outside and instead of firing a pass to James Ryan or Sean Cronin into oncoming traffic, Sexton takes the ball to the line and delays the pass to Max Deegan to turn what should have been a tackle behind the advantage line into a positive gain for the hosts.

It’s a minor play in the grand scale of a dominant victory but it serves as a good example of Sexton’s awareness in close quarters.

Later in the half Sexton turns to receiver and takes in a block pass from Deegan before noticing that the shooting defender for the Dragons has his eyes set on Garry Ringrose.

Scott Fardy’s decoy run back towards the inside keeps the Dragons defence honest while the outside defender can’t quite jam in quick enough to shut down Robbie Henshaw.

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The Ireland inside centre sails clean through the gap and Leinster are once again in a position where they are pressing on the Dragons 22 with momentum.

Sexton’s playmaking ability as a first receiver is one of the hallmarks of his game. He typically takes the ball to the line, is not afraid to take the hit and almost always makes the right decision and hits the right runner before contact.

It’s a big part of why he is generally considered among the greatest pivots in international rugby but on Saturday he also showed his willingness as a support runner.

In the first clip below we can see Leinster add another dimension to Sexton’s patented loop play with a nice inside ball to Dave Kearney but once the winger is brought down, Sexton immediately reloads and hits Jordan Larmour.

The electric 21-year-old tied a PRO rugby record beating 11 defenders against the Dragons, so Sexton can be forgiven for running ahead of his winger, but even when the play breaks down he’s straight into the ruck and blows over the top of the ball to maintain possession.

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In the second-half of the clip, Sexton hits Kearney again with a simple pass behind a decoy runner but he stays with the play and gets the ball back off Kearney before motoring up the pitch where he is eventually hauled in, legally this time, by Ross Moriarty.

Sexton is undoubtedly the chief playmaker in the Leinster attack but he is not the only one capable of creating for his teammates.

Lock James Ryan enjoyed an unprecedented amount of success in his debut campaign last season and he could almost be penciled in for double digit carries and tackles in every game he played.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said that Ryan had an immense work ethic but throughout the season we got to see him develop as a playmaker with his ability to offload a real difference for Leinster in close quarters.

Ryan showed flashes of his playmaking ability against Montpellier and Saracens in last season’s Champions Cup but he unraveled the Dragons defence twice at the RDS.

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His understanding with scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park was exceptional and he turned what should have been a routine forward hit up into a try under the posts for the New Zealander with a delightful ball back inside as he headed towards ground.

A few minutes later and Ryan was back at it again with Gibson-Park, this time drawing in two defenders before hitting the wiry nine back on the inside.

Gibson-Park took off down the field and a few seconds later and Larmour outran everyone to crash over in the corner to secure the bonus point.

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The Dragons look hapless already this season and could be in for a very tough campaign but Leinster look as ruthless as ever.

They make the right decisions, run the right lines and get numbers around the ball carrier whenever there’s even a sniff of a linebreak.

The champions stalled against the Scarlets earlier this month but their attack was at it’s blistering best last weekend and the province look like they could be about to kick into gear with a visit of Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh up next on Saturday.

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