Champions Cup 2022: Evergreen Johnny Sexton at peak of his powers as he bids to have final say again

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 (PA)
(PA)

Leinster are looking to crash an otherwise all-French party when the European finals take place.

First, in Marseille tonight, Lyon and Toulon — both of whom should have plenty of local support — meet in the Challenge Cup Final, before Leinster face La Rochelle in the Champions Cup main event tomorrow afternoon.

The English representation is limited to the officials, with Wayne Barnesrefereeing tomorrow’s final, the coaches’ box, where Stuart Lancaster pulls the strings for Leinster, and Lyon lock Joel Kpoku, once of Saracens.

The Premiership has been a league of great depth this year. Leicester, Saracens and Harlequins have qualified for the play-offs and been outstanding. It is a shame that there is no relegation interest in the final weeks of the season, but another six clubs have harboured genuine top-four ambitions into May.

But at the sharp end of the European season, English sides have not been good enough. Leicester, Sale and Quins put up a decent fight in the Champions Cup, while Sarries and Wasps were Challenge Cup losing semi-finalists.

Exeter and Saracens have both won the competition in the last three seasons, and some put the decline down to the Premiership’s salary cap, which was lowered during the pandemic. Others believe English teams have simply underperformed or been unlucky.

Leinster are not the only Irish representation, with Ronan O’Gara an increasingly impressive coach at La Rochelle, having earlier taken himself off to New Zealand to learn his new trade with the Crusaders. O’Gara’s side love to keep the ball alive, with the wonderful No8 Gregory Alldritt at the heart of everything they do right.

Leinster thrashed champions Toulouse in the semi-final and are favourites to secure their fifth title. Given that they only won their first in 2009, this has been an extraordinary era of strength for a well-oiled machine.

Johnny Sexton was steering the ship in all four of those previous finals victories and, a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday, will be doing the same again tomorrow.

Refreshed by a summer of rest, thanks to his Lions omission, and meticulously managed both by Leinster and Ireland, Sexton has not been far off his vintage best this season.

His partnership with Jamison Gibson-Park, Europe’s form scrum-half, is flourishing, and he has familiar faces from the Ireland side everywhere he looks.

If Leinster secure a fifth title, do not discount a sixth, as the talent keeps pouring through their prolific academy and next season’s final takes place in Dublin.

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