Machenaud KO puts fi­nal on a plat­ter for Sex­ton

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

IF Le­in­ster had in­vested some of their ex­pected sur­plus this sea­son in a sniper to pick off a cou­ple of Rac­ing play­ers then Maxime Machenaud and Leone Nakarawa would have topped the wish-list. The lat­ter does so many things so well he would walk into any team, and to have him hob­ble out of one would be wel­come news to the op­po­si­tion.

As for Machenaud, the scrumhalf’s per­for­mance against Mun­ster in the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal in Bordeaux was as close to what he planned pre-match as makes no odds. He is the heart­beat of Rac­ing: the man who dic­tates their tempo and the man who picks off points when that pace of­fers up shots on goal.

Well, for Le­in­ster, one out of two ain’t bad. Nakarawa will be in Bil­bao on Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon, con­tribut­ing to a Rac­ing li­ne­out that poses the big­gest threat to Le­in­ster this sea­son — up there, or be­yond, the chal­lenge of Sara­cens in the quar­ter-fi­nals. But when the news came through last week that Machenaud would be miss­ing, Le­in­ster’s odds short­ened another bit.

Fac­tor­ing Dim­itri Szarzewski out of the equa­tion is more good news for Le­in­ster, though at least Rac­ing will get to start with Camille Chat whose ag­gres­sion lev­els in this Euro­pean cam­paign have been con­sis­tently on the edge.

The ef­fect of Machenaud’s ab­sence is both spir­i­tual and tech­ni­cal. As cap­tain and leader, his im­por­tance is mas­sive, but even if he was nei­ther his value as a rugby player is key to what they do. Af­ter a dis­tinctly dodgy start to the cam­paign where they were one win from three — Machenaud had missed two of those games — he was back in har­ness for the home win over Cas­tres which got them back on track. In five straight Cham­pi­ons Cup starts, he has scored 84 points, and was mas­sively in­flu­en­tial in the quar­ter-fi­nal win away against Cler­mont and the home semi in Bordeaux against Mun­ster.

Teddy Irib­aren is the man likely to fill the gap. With 25 Top 14 games com­ing to this week­end he’s not a novice — and typ­i­cal of France he will be place-kick­ing as well — but at 76kgs he will be a tar­get for Le­in­ster. His quick feet are a de­fence mech­a­nism for his light frame. Man-on-man de­fence is not his bag.

Luke McGrath is no heavy­weight ei­ther but he is a sav­age com­peti­tor. He is back in train­ing, and if he gets through this week in one piece then it com­pletes a nice swing for Le­in­ster. Fer­gus McFad­den is un­likely to have his name in the hat but Rhys Rud­dock is a good pos­si­bil­ity, and Jordi Mur­phy bet­ter again.

Hav­ing the week­end off is timely — an un­der­strength Rac­ing were at home to Agen in the Top 14 last night — as Leo Cullen tries to bal­ance his re­sources on a busy run-in to the fin­ish line.

Get­ting back on the Euro­pean podium is com­fort­ably top of the agenda. And ev­ery­where you look you see play­ers with ei­ther the tal­ent or ex­pe­ri­ence or both to de­liver that. For Johnny Sex­ton, the leader in chief, the prospect of a fourth Heineken/Cham­pi­ons Cup medal to go with the Chal­lenge Cup one he picked up on Joe Sch­midt’s last cam­paign, is es­pe­cially at­trac­tive.

His two sea­sons in France were use­ful in his fur­ther devel­op­ment as a player but not ob­vi­ously en­joy­able. The Rac­ing team he will face in Bil­bao is a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal to the one he left three years ago to come back to Dublin. He has moved on a bit him­self. With his old mate Machenaud out of the story, it’s nicely set up for Sex­ton to take cen­tre stage.

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