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Tuesday 27 September 2016

Sexton: Leinster can be great again

Jonny sees criticism of his tackling as crazy talk

Pictured at the launch of the Topaz Cash for Clubs was Topaz ambassador Jonathan Sexton. For more see www.topaz.ie Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Pictured at the launch of the Topaz Cash for Clubs was Topaz ambassador Jonathan Sexton. For more see www.topaz.ie Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Jonathan Sexton still holds tight to the belief that Leinster are "building towards something special in the future".

The Ireland out-half was naïve on his return to his province after a two-year sojourn at Racing 92.

He didn't expect to find the former European kingpins closer to the bottom of the mountain than the top.

"I thought it was going to be plain sailing," he said.

"I thought I was just going to come back in and it would be like old times. But, it wasn't."

This is when he took the first and most important step. He had to take a look in the mirror.

"I struggled myself at the start, performance-wise, and I had a couple of really bad games in Europe."

Easier

"It is easier to lead the team if you are performing. If you are not playing well, it is very hard to be telling people what to do."

Sexton has since recovered his form, playing beautifully for Ireland in the Six Nations as Leinster head into the championship minutes of the PRO12 League.

The 30 year-old is Irish Rugby's most prized asset, one worth protecting from his own competitive nature, some would argue.

The way he throws his body into the path of oncoming human traffic has drawn criticism for the price he will pay in terms of his long-term durability as a player and health as a man.

"Once upon a time I was criticised that I couldn't tackle," he said. "It's funny how things can go from that to people then saying 'oh, you tackle too much'. It's funny the way perceptions can change."

His inclination to go in high rather than low has cast doubts over his tackle technique or tackle choice.

"Why do I go high? I do it because it stops the opponent from offloading," he explained. "We did it with Ireland when Les (Kiss) first came in. Everyone was doing it.

"All of a sudden, it's become a big issue with me for some reason. People are linking it to head knocks. Crazy talk.

"As long as one person who never played the game says 'oh, he's more susceptible' it's gospel.

"Surely you've got more chance of being hit in the head if you dive at someone's knees than you do tackling somebody high."

This all comes back to the role of leadership in rugby, a heavy contact sport, requiring heavyweight acts of courage.

"It's very hard to tell other people to defend if you're not doing it yourself.

"That's the way I've always approached the game really," he added.

The man brought back to take Leinster back to the summit of Europe must start with making the PRO12 play-offs.

"I don't think we are that far away," he said. "Look, I think we can get back to where we were. That's the goal, but you need to start somewhere.

"We're starting from where we are at the moment and we just need to get better from where we are."

He is not convinced about the benefits of always looking back at where Leinster were between 2009 and 2012.

"It's important now that we're not comparing ourselves to that team. We want to finish on a high this season, then build the way the last team built.

"The last team didn't just get good overnight. It started with a Magner's League. It built into some harsh lessons in Europe.

"Then, eventually, we got there and we stayed there for a good few years."

The basics under-pinning Leinster rise back then are just as valid now.

"We were there, we were getting a lot of praise for being the best attacking team.

"I think at that time we were probably the best at the basic things; our pass accuracy was outstanding, our rucking was excellent.

"Then, we had some really good players. We also had a little bit of luck. We didn't have many bad injuries through those years really.

"You add up all those things and then you maybe fall off a couple of percent in each of them and you get a couple of bad injuries to really important players.

"It's not so easy."

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