Just like clockwork, it’s happened again. Nearly every time the Six Nations appears on the horizon there is some injury scare or drama surrounding Johnny Sexton, the veteran talisman and now Ireland skipper.
Nothing has seemingly changed in these peculiar Covid times. Twenty days before the Irish resume their delayed 2020 campaign with the visit of Italy to Dublin, the 35-year-old lasted less than 23 minutes of Leinster’s league season opener, trading places with replacement Ross Byrne at the RDS before there was even a sweat broken in the largely one-sided encounter.
We’ve been here on so many occasions before that it was nothing new to see the old trooper troop off with the national interest foremost in his mind and while Leinster will do their usual and play down his premature exit, brace yourself for the usual diet of speculation about the health of Sexton, this treasured of Ireland playmakers on whom Andy Farrell – and Joe Schmidt before him – pins so much on.
Sexton had hardly covered himself in glory during his short-lived cameo, scuffing the kick-off which didn’t travel the requisite distance as happened at one critical first-half stage during the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens 13 days earlier.
He did nearly create an opening try for Hugo Keenan, the winger agonisingly failing to apply the necessary finish, but Leinster had just gone two tries to the good when Sexton eventually said his farewell and drifted away into the night air, sparking the Dr Googles of Ireland into action with the various prognosis on the the state of their most valuable man’s hamstring strain.
New season, same @leinsterrugby ?
Sum up their display this evening?
Highlights ??? pic.twitter.com/5XdUn8rB7F
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) October 2, 2020
As for the match, the kindest we can say is we came in search of a flicker of light for the general competitiveness of this garbled five-nation PRO14 set-up and skulked away a few hours later chastened by the latest evidence that these run of the mill champions versus bang average XV fixtures are hardly worth the hassle of stepping outside the front door.
A lack of PRO14 intensity was one of the main reasons that came out in the wash after Leinster were ambushed by Saracens, the analysis suggesting that their long-established dominance in a league tournament they have won three times on the bounce and five in eight years just isn’t of the level required for the step-up in competitions.
That, of course, isn’t Leinster’s fault – they can’t be held responsible for other clubs not being up to the mark in the PRO14, but they would surely revel in more clubs making a better fist of matches against them and stop the action from frequently being a cakewalk.
There wasn’t much hope for the Dragons, admittedly. The margins between these teams in their last three Dublin encounters was 35, 42 and 44 points and the gap at the Friday night interval was 21 before finishing at 30, the Wesh region beaten 35-5.
Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour and James Lowe all touched down in the corner during an opening half where the only Dragons incidents of note were Jamie Roberts’ yellow card for tacking Ringrose high in the act of scoring and the stumble that felled Sam Davies in open country with the try line at his mercy.
In time, Dragons should improve robustness given the roster overhaul overseen during the lockdown by the no-nonsense Dean Ryan, and they did look snappy getting on the board through Ashton Hewitt’s 59th-minute acrobatics by the flag.
By then, though, Lowe had already bagged his second and Leinster’s fourth to secure the bonus point, and they closed out the procession with an effort from Ryan Baird.
Winter months packed with more of this same one-sidedness surely can’t satisfy Leinster, however – nor enhance the credibility of the league that it is the real deal compared to the Premiership and Top 14. Those South African Super Rugby teams, touted for inclusion this week in 2021, can’t arrive in quick enough to lift the general standard.
LEINSTER 35 (Tries: Ringrose 17, Larmour 22, Lowe 32, 56, Baird 65. Cons: Sexton 18, Ringrose 23, Byrne 33, 57, 66) DRAGONS 5 (Try: Hewitt 59)
The @AVIVAStadium has played a literally monumental role in the story of modern Irish rugby. @CiaranKennedy_. ??? talks to @jamieheaslip and @MikeRoss03 on a special anniversary for Lansdowne Road ??https://t.co/HgWEafJqQa
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 2, 2020
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