When Jonathan Sexton leads Leinster out at St James’ Park on Saturday in the final of the Champions Cup there will more than just another trophy at stake.
If the Irish province can become the first team to beat Saracens in Europe this season they will enter the record books as the first team ever to win five Champions Cup crowns, surpassing Toulouse’s haul of four.
Sexton was at the BT Murrayfield Stadium for Leinster’s first European Cup triumph in 2009.
Aged 23, he nailed a now-iconic drop-goal from the halfway line as Leinster staged a second-half comeback to secure a 19-16 victory over two-time winners Leicester Tigers.
Fast forward 10 years and the province are on the cusp of creating history, but thoughts of that maiden triumph are still fresh in the memory as Sexton prepares to do battle with another powerhouse of English rugby.
“I remember it well, it feels like only yesterday. I remember how nervous I was before the game,” says Sexton.
“With the drop-goal… I remember in the warm-up Tom Varndell, who wouldn’t have been renowned as a great kicker, dropped a goal from the 10m line and it sailed over!
“That put the idea in my head. So when Gordon D’Arcy passed me the ball I just had it in my head that if Varndell can get it from the 10 metre line then maybe I can get it from the halfway line!
“I had a go and thankfully there was a little bit of breeze behind me and that took it over.
“I had many good memories of watching the European Cup growing up so to finally get to play in it was a dream come true.”
As memories go, few will be as sweet as the 2011 Champions Cup final when Sexton spear-headed a remarkable second-half comeback against Northampton Saints to seal the club's second Champions Cup crown.
In an all-time European classic, Leinster battled back from 22-6 down at half-time to score 27 unanswered second–half points to seal a 33-22 victory in Cardiff.
Sexton scored 22 of those 27 unanswered points and the performance remains one of the most astonishing individual displays in European Cup history.
Leinster and Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll played alongside Sexton that day, winning the second of his three winners’ medals.
Eight years on, the 40-year-old BT Sport pundit tells a story of Sexton citing Liverpool’s famous 2005 Champions League final comeback as inspiration in a half-time speech at the Principality Stadium, but it’s an anecdote the fly-half refutes.
“We have arguments about this. I’m a Manchester United fan so I argue that I didn’t mention Liverpool [and the Miracle of Istanbul],” he laughs.
“I just felt in the first-half we were playing pretty well but we kept making crucial errors and we couldn’t get any momentum because we kept coughing up penalties at set piece which allowed them to kick the ball into our half and keep the ball.
“They were a good side, Northampton. I remember just saying ‘look lads, if we can get our act together in the second half then we create a bit of history and make this final be remembered’."
Sexton has never lost in the five European finals he has competed in but the veteran of two Lions tours insists history counts for nothing come kick off on Saturday.
Leinster have twice beaten English opposition to lift the Champions Cup, but Sexton is fully aware that Saracens represent their sternest test yet.
“We’ve got the experience of those big finals to draw on but I don’t think it counts for much on the big day,” says Sexton.
“We’re not guaranteed anything and they’re not guaranteed anything. It’s going to be a hell of a game.
“We knew last year they were the best team we were going to face and we know now that they’re going to be the best team we’ve faced all year.
“But that’s what you expect when you play a team that are not far off the English national team.
“It would be very special for all of us to make Leinster the first team to win five European titles.
“It would put us in a unique category. When you looking back at your career afterwards you always want to be the first to achieve something like that.
“But we know it’s going to be incredibly tough. The two best teams in the competition are playing and it’s going to be a hell of a game.
“I never thought we’d get back to last year’s final and win it, so to now be trying to go back-to-back with this group is very special and we’ve come a long way in the last few years.”
One of the main sub-plots of the final will be the duel between Sexton and his former Lions team-mate, Owen Farrell, a player with whom Sexton shares many similarities, shirt number aside.
Both are born leaders. Ferocious competitors who demand nothing but absolute maximum effort from those around them.
Although vocal on the pitch, both are also intensely private away from rugby. So does Sexton see Farrell as a kindred spirit?
“He’s a world-class player and he’s proven that over the last few years and I’ve been lucky enough to play with him on the last two Lions tours.
“That’s for other people to decide,” says Sexton.
“If people compare me to him I take that as a compliment because I admire him as a player and as a competitor.
“You look at him and you know how much he wants to win so if people are looking at me in the same way then I take it as a compliment.
“He’s a great competitor, I think that’s probably his finest quality. Sometimes when you look at other fly-halves that’s not their best attribute.
“I mean that in the best way possible in that he’s a competitor first and then he’s got all the skills to go with it which is the mark of an outstanding player.
“He seems to lead that Saracens team really well. He’s been in good form of late and we’re going to have to make sure we do everything we can do put enough pressure on him to put him off his game.
“We know if we stop him we go a long way to stopping Saracens.”
With as many as 16 Lions set to be on show there are mouth-watering individual match-ups all over the park and Sexton is at pains to make sure Leinster pay attention to ‘the bigger picture’.
“There are a lot of players throughout the Saracens team who we’re going to have to stop and he’s obviously up at the top of the list because he was one of their best players, if not their best player,” he says.
“Often to try and stop the fly-half you’ve got to try and stop the players around him because if you give them front-foot ball then it makes his job easier.
“You have to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just a case of going out there and trying to stop him, it’s about looking at the whole team as a whole, picking out individuals that give them go forward and trying to stop them.”
Saracens v Leinster, featuring much more from this exclusive interview with Sexton, will be live on BT Sport 2 HD from 4pm on Saturday 11 May.
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