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Sunday 19 February 2017

Johnny primed for his blues return

Spotlight on Sexton's comeback as Leinster target bonus point victory

Jonathan Sexton at Leinster squad training in Belfield
Jonathan Sexton at Leinster squad training in Belfield
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen during yesterday’s press conference at the RDS

It is a sad indictment of the nature of the Irish system that Leinster will have a stronger unit out against Zebre tonight than they did against Munster on St Stephen's Day.

More optimistically, Jonathan Sexton will make his return from a 48-day break to sort out his hamstring issues.

"He's fit and raring to go," said coach Leo Cullen.

"As you well know, he's trained the last couple of weeks, he's been involved with the team so he's good to go this weekend."

It must have been a source of irritation that Sexton trained all last week without the pay-off of game-time against Ulster.

"It's no different to any other player that is out injured.

"It's frustrating because players enjoy when they are playing the game.

"That's why, I'm sure, they started playing the game in the first place.

"We've several other players out injured but he's back now, another opportunity for him to get back playing and put his case for selection for what's ahead."

Lead out

Sexton will lead out Leinster as their captain this evening as Isa Nacewa takes a well-deserved rest and flanker Josh van der Flier is ill.

There are seven changes to the 15 which took care of Ulster in the last round of the PRO12 League.

It is split between three backs in Sexton, centre Robbie Henshaw and full-back Zane Kirchner and four forwards in prop Cian Healy, hooker James Tracy, flanker Dan Leavy and number eight Jack Conan.

There is also a barrage of Ireland internationals on the bench, such as Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip.

"For us, we've got to focus on the Guinness PRO12 at the moment, focus on getting a good performance against a difficult Zebre team which pushed Edinburgh very close last week.

"We need to focus on that," Cullen asserted.

"Some guys, we're looking at certain combinations and making sure everyone is in good shape before heading into Europe again."

It is a subject outside the control of the provinces that their Ireland internationals were restricted to 'one-from-two' inter-provincials the week before Cullen is given greater control for Zebre.

At the moment, Leinster paid for finding four points from two games by dropping to third on the ladder.

The full five points return will take them over the top of The Ospreys, for at least 24 hours, and back on terms with the League leaders Munster.

This will also mark the first outing for the introduction of the new law changes, implemented by World Rugby, that have redefined illegal (high) tackle categories and increased sanctions.

"The minimum on-field sanction for a reckless (high) tackle will be a yellow card with a maximum of red, while the minimum on-field sanction for an accidental (high) tackle will be a penalty," noted a Guinness PRO12 statement yesterday.

There has been dissent from some quarters about how law changes, made with the safety of the player high-most in the mind, are somehow taking away from the game.

"The game is faster now. The skill level is higher now," said Cullen.

"I think it is important that you are not putting players at unnecessary risk.

"I think these are positive steps. You don't want a player getting injured from head high shots.

"Concussion is a serious issue, you don't want to trivialise it in any way."

Coach Cullen also went to some length to stress how the sanctions have changed, but the tackle technique has not. What is illegal now was illegal then.

It is the firmer threats of yellow and red cards that will shine the spotlight on borderline collisions.

In regard to this evening, anything less than the bonus-point will be taken as a backward step ahead of the last two rounds of The Champions Cup.

The best way of getting ready for Montpellier next Friday is to take the Italians apart tonight.

That should happen with a good deal to spare.

Leinster: Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O'Loughlin; J Sexton (capt), L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Bent, D Toner, H Triggs, D Leavy, S O'Brien, J Conan.

Zebre: K Baker; M Bellini, M Pratichetti, T Castello, L Greef; E Padovani, M Violi; A Lovotti, T D'Apice, P Ceccarelli, G Koeglenberg, G Biagi, (capt), D Minnie, F Ruzza, A van Schalkwyk.

Verdict: Leinster

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