Somehow, we all may have underestimated Johnny Sexton 1 month ago

Somehow, we all may have underestimated Johnny Sexton

One French outlet described the Leinster outhalf as "rustproof".

Every now and then, you are afforded the opportunity to watch these big rugby matches in with the supporters, at grounds, in bars or on a TV screen at home. Saturday was just the case as Johnny Sexton and Leinster throttled Toulouse.

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We had a First Communion out our way, so there was no trip into the city to watch the two premier sides in European rugby over the past two decades. We were playing hosts, though, so the front room had the Leinster game on TV, while 12 or 13 kids literally knocked heads as they plotted tipping the bouncy castle on its side.

For all the talk of Leinster being favourites to reach the Champions Cup Final, you can never rest easy with Toulouse. Ulster and Munster had both enjoyed huge periods of possession, territory and pressure only to fall short against Antoine Dupont & Co.

On Saturday, the only time you could really relax, if you were cheering Leinster on, was when Ross Byrne kicked them 16 clear with seven minutes to go. Surely Toulouse couldn't dig themselves out of this one? Surely.

An example of Toulouse being comfortable in chaos arrived with their sixth minute try, turning a brilliant Leinster break into a Dupont intercept score. Leinster were swarming the reigning champions for the first 15 minutes and were still 7-6 behind. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster would have emphasised the break-neck opening to their men, especially after Toulouse going 100+ minutes against Munster, last weekend.

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Spurred on by Jamison Gibson Park and Sexton, Leinster kept the faith and, more importantly, kept the foot to the floor. On and on the came until Toulouse eventually cracked. James Lowe got over in the corner and Leinster never looked back.

Johnny Sexton Johnny Sexton and Jimmy O'Brien of Leinster during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final against Toulouse, at the Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile)

The ongoing brilliance of Johnny Sexton

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I have been following and covering Johnny Sexton for 16 years, at this stage. Like many others, I have long acknowledged his brilliance and his importance to Leinster and Ireland.

Watching over the past two years, it is possible that he may have stepped it up a level again, even from the 2018 form that earned him World Player of the Year.

Back in November 2021, I wrote about how Sexton had settled any lingering debates - two years out from the biggest tournament in rugby - about who should be Ireland's starting 10 at the World Cup. The 2022 Six Nations and this latest European campaign with Leinster simply re-affirms that belief.

Sexton is, far and away, the best outhalf we have in the country. It is great that Joey Carbery is back, staying fit and showing his class again. Sexton is still a couple of levels up.

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To sit back, among friends and family, on Saturday and watch Sexton from a different perspective only heightened by appreciation for the guy. His attacking lines, his cut-back passes, his timing of release and his running threat were all so impressive. Romain Ntamack may be a Grand Slam winner and a potent 10 in his own right, but he got a free lesson from the Leinster veteran.

In terms of match statistics - in Leinster's 40-17 victory - Sexton made 39 metres off seven carries, with one clean break thrown in for good measure, and six tackles landed and 15 contributed off the kicking tee. Crucially, he assisted in three of Leinster's tries.

As others around me marvelled at how Sexton could still be pulling defences apart, and setting them on their heels, so much after all these years, I wondered if we had all still been guilty of underestimating the guy. Back in 2017, I called him Ireland's greatest ever outhalf and I still feel guilty about not trumping about his play, his achievements, the way he carries himself and his team, more.

Over in France, Le Figaro noted, "The years pass, the concussions too, but he is still there. At 36, we wonder if he is still at the level, but Sexton proves in high-stakes matches that he is still just as effective." Just as many in the French rugby press refuse to drop the Sexton concussion narrative, the outhalf continues to torment their best sides.

Other Leinster players that stood out, watching from a couch as opposed from the Upper West Stand, were Gibson Park, Lowe, Josh van der Flier (as per usual) and the exceptional Caelan Doris.

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This is a special generation of Leinster players but they are missing that second European Cup triumph to follow from Bilbao in 2018. The squad's younger players are just missing that first taste of European final victory.

If they get it, in a fortnight, they may dominate for the next few years.