JONNY COOL ON CARDIFF; Millennium Bug Is Not an Issue for Fearless Sexton on Welsh Return
Byline: by SHANE McGRATH
YEP, Jonny Sexton confirms, he has played just the once in the Millennium Stadium. You might recall the occasion; it was just two months ago. The exact date was Saturday, March 12. The details of the day don't need retelling. They will long stay vivid in the memories of Irish rugby supporters.
'Yeah, that was my first game there,' Sexton nodded yesterday. 'Obviously, I'll have learned from that ... that the touchlines are a little closer than I thought! But, no, that will stand to me playing there, I know the surroundings, I know the pitch, what it looks like and that will help my preparations.' A man can pan positives out of the most difficult waters. Sexton came off the bench for Ireland in the Six Nations against Wales, a game now infamous on account of Mike Phillips' brazenly illegal try. Phillips galloped across the Irish try-line from a lineout throw taken quickly by Matthew Rees.
The Welsh hooker had used a different ball from the one that went out of play, of course, but focus on the ball rather than the offence for a moment. Wales had won a lineout in the first place because Sexton's first act on replacing Ronan O'Gara in the 49th minute of the contest was to slice a kick into touch, on the full. Hence the Welsh lineout, and the chaos that ensued.
The details are not being reprised to taunt Sexton; it is a measure of the fly-half's mental fortitude that he raises them himself. This should come as no surprise, however.
A week after his experiences in Cardiff -- he missed a very kickable penalty after that first wobble -- he was picked to start against England and was superb. He has been superb for Leinster all term, too, and was lively against Ulster last Friday night.
That is noteworthy because he has been bothered by a leg injury for the past two weeks that left him well below optimum fitness in the semi-final.
'I hurt my leg about two weeks ago,' he confessed.
'It was a couple of days after the Toulouse game. I just hurt it in training, so I didn't train really before the Ulster semi-final. I just literally turned up and it felt good on the day so we went for it. But I was probably at about 90 per cent.
'I was nearly there but I didn't really try to put the foot down. It was my left leg, though, not the kicking one.'
Healthy for the final, he can concentrate on the Millennium Stadium. Judging by his rueful account of what he learned on his first visit, there are no mental issues for the player or Joe Schmidt to worry about. Instead, he can worry about the practicalities of the day.
When it comes to the Millennium Stadium, the first and most pressing of these is the roof. The player himself reports that no decision has yet been taken on whether it will be open or closed.
As with the Six Nations, he says, both coaches must agree if it is to be open.
'If the roof is open, I think it's such an enclosed stadium it wouldn't make a difference either way with the wind,' he reasoned. 'Obviously if it's raining, we would like it closed but at the same time when it's closed it can get a bit dewy and greasy so I don't know really, I haven't been there when the roof has been closed.
'But we've got plenty of lads in the team who have: they obviously played in the Grand Slam match a few years ago when the roof was closed. The atmosphere apparently was unbelievable but it does create very little air, it's harder to breathe and it's very greasy so it can have some bad effects as well.'
Still just 25, this will be Sexton's second Heineken Cup final in three seasons. …