South African Twitter was pure ructions.
Johnny Sexton came off the bench in the United Rugby Championship semi-final, against the Bulls, last season and had that snarling, chirping, prodding persona ramped up to 10/10.
Leinster lost the day, and Sexton caught some flak for what some saw as unnecessary goading of the opposition and the match officials.
On Saturday at The RDS, we witnessed something that should not surprise us at all – Johnny Sexton is not changing for anyone. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.
The Leinster captain knows what a threat to the block all the South African sides are. The Bulls came to Dublin, in May, and took Leinster’s lunch money. At the weekend, Sharks threatened to do likewise, and all without Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth.
Leinster were not up to full-strength either, and they lost Jordan Larmour, Jack Conan and Ryan Baird to injuries, during the game. Still, they would have been heavily backed to win a Sharks side without all their big guns, and coming to Dublin on a Saturday evening.
Sharks were mixing up their attack – hammer and sickle – and they were both driving Leinster back then cutting through them and generating overlaps to get over. It was only due to some iffy kicking off the tee, a couple of individual errors in defence and some brilliance from Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose that saw the hosts lead by a point at half-time.
Sexton was well aware that his side were neck-deep in a match and that the Sharks were close to a statement making win.Johnny Sexton of Leinster celebrates with teammate Cian Healy after scoring his side’s seventh try against Sharks, at RDS Arena. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile)
Johnny Sexton steps up to seal victory
With Luke McGrath not seeing the second half either, after taking a blow to the head, Johnny Sexton was without three teammates from a strong XV that started against Sharks.
Leinster were able to keep Sharks at arm’s length for most of the match, but it was not until Rob Russell’s try – on 64 minutes – until a home win started to look safe. It had not been the case for much of the evening. Then, minutes later, Sexton stepped up himself to deliver the clincher.
The captain’s roaring, unbridled celebration let everyone know how much victory meant to him.
— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) October 8, 2022
Even before the final whistle, the Johnny Sexton gripes were openly flowing on Twitter. Many of the South African rugby fans that have to deal with the outhalf every year or two, are now seeing [and hearing] him a lot more.
Even some of the South African pundits were getting drawn into it:
An observation from the weekend’s rugby. If I never watch Johnny Sexton play a rugby match again it will be too soon.
Never have I ever seen a rugby player whinge and moan as much as that stuck record. Have you ever seen great captains act like towards an official?
— Nick Tatham (@NickTatham22) October 10, 2022
How many players would get away with the backchat that Sexton gets away with. Siya gets half the leewatly but there is an written rule to put up with Sextons whinging
— Brenden Nel (@BrendenNel) October 8, 2022
Jonny Sexton owning the ref
— Mark Keohane (@mark_keohane) October 8, 2022
Johnny Sexton was a constant on the ref-mic, with Craig Evans almost getting some free match commentary from the Leinster 10. Where a referee like Mathieu Raynal or Wayne Barnes will try to shut down that steady captain’s chatter, Evans has shown that is is open to it.
Only at one stage, as Ryan Baird lay prone on the pitch and Sexton was asking, “How is that not foul play?” – regarding the mid-air collision – did Evans scold, “That’s enough, Johnny.”
Sexton then completely blew his top as he bellowed, “Get him off!” after Janse van Rensburg went in for a high shot on Ross Byrne that did indeed see the Sharks centre red-carded. This was the fifth of his teammates that had been injured in collisions, clear-outs or tackles with South African players, and his frustration was evident. Understandable too.
Players know the referee’s and how far they can push it with each one. Sexton has not always tread that line perfectly but he obviously feels Evans is more option to conversation, and persuasion.
For the South Africans, take it as a sign of how much Sexton respects, and is wary of, their sides that he was out there on Saturday night going on like it was a Lions Test match decider.
And for anyone truly irked by his behaviour, there is only 12 (maybe 13) months of it left before he hangs up the playing boots.
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