Smooth Sexton sidesteps Venter's calm fury over rugby's '793 rules'

Saracens 23 Leinster 25
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The Independent Online

The Leinster match-winners were mindful of their charter flight back to Dublin and tapping their watches while Brendan Venter delivered his polemic on the trouble with refereeing in the Heineken Cup and potentially next year's World Cup. Even so, there was time enough when Saracens' director of rugby was finished predicting the death of rugby for Jonathan Sexton, who had dealt quite beautifully with the version we are currently stuck with, to enjoy his moment in the spotlight.

Sexton scored a crucial try at high speed in the 52nd minute and kicked flawlessly to finish with a conversion, six penalties and all his side's points. He smiled when asked about these achievements and frowned over Venter's critical comments. These revolved around the Heineken Cup organisers (dis-organisers?) allowing differing interpretations among their referees and having no system of feedback. Also, the knock-on effect that defending sides are getting away with too much, and that with big, fit, fast players in almost every position nowadays, it is easy to ruin a match. Venter's implication being, you understand, that Leinster had done just that.

So did Sexton, who has shown his sumptuous skills against England and London Irish at Twickenham in this calendar year, and now at Wembley, feel uncomfortable when faced with a French referee? "I thought he reffed pretty well," the fly-half said. "He refereed the defensive side, which is what you're meant to do. A few of the penalties we conceded [Venter thought there should have been 50 more of them] were actually when we had the ball and got isolated. No, it's not really about the ref. We showed we didn't have to concede penalties at the end and we can take something out of that, going forward."

This was a reference to Saracens' final movement of 30 phases, when a whistle against Leinster would almost certainly have cost them the match, given the accuracy of Alex Goode's goal kicking. Goode had moved up from full-back for Saracens to cover for Derick Hougaard, whose suffered a suspected ruptured Achilles tendon. The teenaged Owen Farrell is the club's only other fly-half cover, and he is currently ill with appendicitis.

Much earlier, in the sixth minute, one incident highlighted several aspects of Venter's argument. Saracens' Ernst Joubert was tackled by Gordon D'Arcy: a big, quick No 8 brought down by a big, quick inside centre. In England this season the refereeing directives – which are supposed to apply worldwide – have permitted Joubert a split-second to place the ball, favouring the attacker whereas a year ago the defenders ruled. Here, Jamie Heaslip, Leinster's second man in and staying on his feet, was wrestling the ball before Joubert could get it to ground. Penalty to Saracens? No, penalty to Leinster for Joubert holding on. "If the International Board don't come up with a way to take the illegalities out of the game, it will not survive," said Venter with the calm fury of a qualified GP accustomed to delivering bad news in his other job; he also wielded a shotgun to kill a snake while on a trip home to South Africa last week.

"You need [referees] to be better when it comes to our rules." The good doctor wants different countries' referees and coaches to compare their case notes more often. Otherwise, he predicted, the World Cup could be a mish-mash of different refereeing.

The outcome hinged in part on Saracens slavishly pursuing the wide channels which had failed to deliver a win or a bonus in Clermont-Ferrand the week before. Probably Sarries must now win away to Racing-Metro or Leinster or both to reach the quarter-finals. Leinster, the 2009 champions, are sitting pretty with two wins. Sexton's 25 points were four short of Dave Holwell's club record of 29 in a European match though that came in a 92-point thumping of Bourgoin.

But you do wonder at the bigger picture. Coaches sit behind a phalanx of laptops, analysing immediate replays and pulling apart players' and referees' games on the spot. The scrum which was once 16 men grappling over a mark scraped on the turf has become a slow-motion nonsense proscribed by the referee's command, "crouch, touch, pause, stick the kettle on, engage". You can continue ad infinitum to tidy up the game and its "793 rules", as Venter put it, but someone has had a good crack already – and it is called rugby league.

Scorers: Saracens: Try Goode; Penalties Hougaard 2, Goode 4. Leinster: Try Sexton; Conversion Sexton; Penalties Sexton 6.

Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell (K Ratuvou, 58), B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard (N Cato, 46), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 46); D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Smith, 60), J Burger, A Saull, E Joubert (K Brown, 60).

Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, L Fitzgerald (F McFadden, 46), G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss, 56); C Healy (H van der Merwe, 60) , R Strauss, M Ross (S Shawe, 76), N Hines, D Toner (L Cullen, 69), S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).

Referee: C Berdos (France).

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