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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

'Johnny is unbelievably passionate about Leinster and about us getting better'

Johnny Sexton captains Leinster on his first appearance of the season tonight, and the significance of his return after a summer away with the Lions cannot be underestimated.

LONG AFTER LEINSTER’S captain’s run had concluded yesterday afternoon, Johnny Sexton remained on the RDS pitch alongside the province’s kicking coach Emmet Farrell. It’s not unusual for the place kickers to take a bit of extra time after the session to find their range, but his attention to detail is meticulous and work ethic relentless.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton returns for Leinster tonight. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Kicking from the tee, kicking from hand and going through various drills with Farrell, Sexton was out there for a good half an hour longer than his team-mates ahead of his first appearance of the season tonight when Leinster host Edinburgh [KO 7.35pm, TG4].

Sexton returns alongside three of his fellow Lions from this summer’s tour of New Zealand as Sean O’Brien, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong bolster Leo Cullen’s side for the first game in a key block of fixtures for Leinster.

The Ireland out-half, named captain for the night, is also closing in on a major career milestone as nine points against Richard Cockerill’s side will see him become Leinster’s all-time record points scorer ahead of Felipe Contepomi.

It is remarkable to think back eight years and recall how he was thrown on in the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster at Croke Park when Contepomi was forced off through injury. Sexton truly came of age that day, and has developed into a truly world-class 10 whose continued desire to better himself and the teams he’s playing in remains an invaluable asset.

The significance of his presence in that Leinster dressing room cannot be understated. Outstanding for the Lions in the second and third Tests against the All Blacks, Sexton has returned to duty sharper and hungrier than ever. Leinster’s two semi-final defeats last term would have hurt, and angered, him more than anyone else and he is hell-bent on putting it right.

“He’s unbelievably passionate about the team, about us all getting better and getting better himself,” Cullen says of tonight’s captain.

“It took him a while to get into the team, you think back to the days when he was fighting it out with Felipe and he had his little snippets in the team. I remember that season well, Felipe gets injured in that game against Munster in 2009 and the rest is history.

“Johnny steps in, goes on to lead the team for the rest of that game and the final the same. He goes on for a very successful period, he goes to France and we all know how that unfolded. What he did in New Zealand, the impact he had in the second and third Tests. It’s huge.

“You could see he is such a key leadership figure and his knowledge of the game and experience that he has, there’s nobody like him out there at the moment. He goes on to play a huge role in the team [Lions], comes back hungry and wants Leinster to do well.

“He’s ambitious to get better himself. He’s unbelievably hungry to improve as an individual and that’s contagious in the group as well. We’re excited to have him back and he’s definitely going to be a huge contributor to the group.”

Jonathan Sexton Sexton and Leo Cullen in training this week. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Indeed, any team with Johnny Sexton in it is instantly a better side. Not only does be bring those aforementioned leadership qualities both on and off the field but his rugby intelligence, a sharp attacking and playmaking ability, a tactically astute kicking game and unerring accuracy from the tee makes him the most important cog in this Leinster wheel.

Great teams have great players, but most significantly great leaders and Sexton falls into that category. He sets, drives and demands standards, he pulls the strings, dictates the tempo and orchestrates proceedings. There’s an aura about him, one which would suggest he can be an intimating figure in the dressing room, but he wants one thing and one thing only; success for Leinster.

“Someone like Johnny has been around, he’s done a hell of a lot in the game and he’s got an amazing mind as well,” Cullen continued. “Isa [Nacewa] is captain of the club and carries out a similar role, he’s got unbelievable experience and actually been both sides of it having gone back and had a coaching role with the Blues.

“Those guys are great drivers, Johnny is captain of the team tonight and the experience he has, the Lions tours he’s been on, the Ireland games he’s played, with Leinster and even his experiences in France as well gives him incredible experience. They’ve a huge say in how the team is run and rightly so.

“It’s important that we have a lot of leaders in the team. You look back at all the great teams, they have leaders sprinkled across the team.

“Johnny hasn’t actually captained the team as much as people would think. It is a big step for him, a good step in his development and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there.

“As he’s getting older, he’s evolving all the time. He’s 100% Leinster and he wants Leinster to win and do well. You can never question him on that. He has amazing drive to get better whether it is with Leinster or with Ireland.

“We’re lucky to have him here in Ireland is the way I look at it.”

Certainly Sexton’s appearance on the Leinster team-sheet is an immediate draw for supporters and the province expect close to 15,000 at the RDS for the second home game of the campaign later.

Something resembling a full strength squad coupled with the fact the South African tour is now in the rearview mirror means there is a real sense that this fixture marks the start of Leinster’s season in earnest.

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Leo Cullen Cullen speaking to the media at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Three wins from their opening four Pro14 games isn’t a bad return but the bonus point victories may have papered over a few underlying cracks, which were exposed last week by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

With interpro derbies against Munster and Ulster sandwiched in-between Champions Cup ties against Montpellier and Glasgow, Leinster are now heading into a period during which their credentials will be sternly tested.

Firstly, however, is the visit of Edinburgh who have won two and lost two of their games under the tutelage of Cockerill following his arrival as head coach in the summer. Having worked with the Englishman at Leicester, Cullen knows what to expect come 7.35pm this evening.

“It is another tricky assignment for us this week,” the former second row said.

“Edinburgh this week are coming off the back of two losses and knowing Richard Cockerill well, I know the mindset and approach they’ll take into the game. We need to be ready physically for what’s going to be coming at us.

“Hopefully, we will get a big crowd. It is important for the players, playing in front of their home crowd. They want to produce special moments the crowd can get behind.

“So many players come through the system here to be in front of friend and family. Hopefully, that leads into such an important part of the season.

“It is the feeling of ‘we are at the start of the season now’ — back at home at the RDS. Hopefully, we can kick on from there.”


15. Joey Carbery
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Noel Reid
11. Dave Kearney
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Jack McGrath
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Seán O’Brien


16. Bryan Byrne
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Max Deegan
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Jordan Larmour


15. Glenn Bryce
14. Tom Brown
13. James Johnstone
12. Phil Burleigh
11. Dougie Fife
10. Jason Tovey
9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne

1. Darryl Marfo
2. Stuart McInally
3. Simon Berghan
4. Fraser McKenzie (captain)
5. Grant Gilchrist
6. Jamie Ritchie
7. Hamish Watson
8. Cornell du Preez


16. Neil Cochrane
17. Murray McCallum
18. Kevin Bryce
19. Anton Bresler
20. John Hardie
21. Nathan Fowles
22. Blair Kinghorn
23. Robbie Fruean

Referee: Ian Davies (WRU).

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