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Cullen: 'It was really pleasing for Johnny to get back out there'

The Leinster out-half played a starring role in Friday’s pre-season win over Harlequins.

Leinster captain Johnny Sexton,
Leinster captain Johnny Sexton,
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

AFTER FIVE MONTHS out of action, Johnny Sexton returned to the rugby pitch in style as the out-half played a starring role in Leinster’s 40-21 pre-season win over Harlequins at the Aviva Stadium tonight.

The Leinster and Ireland captain hasn’t been seen on a rugby pitch since a head injury forced him off in the Champions Cup win over Exeter last April, the subsequent extended lay-off seeing him sit out Ireland summer’s Test and miss out on selection for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

But in his first game back Sexton looked like a man who has benefitted from the time off, the out-half running the show in a superb 40-minute display.

In an entertaining first-half, Sexton kicked four conversions, scored one try and played a key role in three others as Leinster powered into a 28-7 lead, before being replaced by head coach Leo Cullen at the break.

“It was really pleasing for Johnny to get back out there,” said Cullen.

“It’s been a decent lay-off for him now so he’s nice and fresh, which is good. It was a like a little bit of a sabbatical for him, so it could add a bit more time to his career, which would be great. 

“He’s led the guys well over the last couple of weeks and it’s great to see him back out there. He has so much experience which he brings to the team.

“It was a positive 40 minutes for him, and I thought Ross (Byrne) came in and controlled the game well in the second half as well. 

“Obviously it was a bit more challenging because there were so many changes in personnel and guys moving around, particularly in the backline, but between the two of them they have been excellent over the course of pre-season. It was a real advantage for us, having those two around. We’re lucky that has been the case (this summer).”

Sexton recently explained that while he largely felt the benefits of the enforced break, he found it difficult to watch both Ireland and the Lions, part of him wishing he was out there in the middle of it all. 

“He’s been great (since coming back),” Cullen continued.

“We were all gutted when players don’t get selected. Some guys in our group, we’d love to see them being away with the Lions. There were a few guys that I thought were unlucky from our group.

“But I guess we’re the beneficiaries from that, because we had the likes of Johnny and a few others around for pre-season, so that’s hugely positive for us and for some of the young guys to just be around someone like Johnny with his level of intellect and experience in the game. It’s great learning for a lot of those guys day-to-day.

“So it’s been great having Johnny back out there playing. It’s a start, 40 minutes, so hopefully we can build on that from here. ”

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Cullen also confirmed that the first-half injury suffered by Chris Cosgrave does not appear to be as bad as initially feared.

Following a lengthy stoppage, the young fullback left the pitch on a medical cart following a dangerous high shot by Harlequins centre Andre Esterhuizen.

“Yeah Chris is OK,” Cullen said.

“I think when you see the cart come on everything gets a bit nervous, but he’s OK. It was more to his neck, so his neck was stiff, but he’s OK there in the dressing room.

“Rhys (Ruddock) then just felt a bit of cramp in his calf in the first half so we took him off more as a precaution. They were the only two (injuries) really, and hopefully neither of them are particularly bad.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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