Johnny Sexton 'not a million miles away' from making return for Leinster

The 35-year-old Ireland captain is back training but hasn’t done contact.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LEINSTER BOSS LEO Cullen said captain Johnny Sexton is not too far from making a return from his head injury as he underlined the province’s faith in Ross Byrne ahead of this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle.

Byrne will be in the number 10 shirt for Sunday’s game at Stade Marcel Deflandre, while scrum-half Luke McGrath will captain the team in Sexton’s absence.

The 35-year-old Ireland skipper suffered his latest head injury in Leinster’s quarter-final victory over Exeter three weekends ago, having also picked up head injuries for Ireland and Leinster earlier this year.

Sexton recently signed a one-year central contract extension with the IRFU to play on next season and Cullen indicated that the experienced playmaker could be back in action soon.

“With Johnny, we were just keen for him to see some specialists and experts in the field and ultimately we have a lot of faith in Ross as well,” said Cullen.

“We’re on the conservative side with some of the decision-making so we didn’t try to pressure Johnny. People will have seen he is training with the group, we’re just keeping him out of the contact piece at the moment.

“He’s not a million miles away from being available so that was just the decision we made and that everyone came to. So we need to crack on with the group that we have.”

Central to that group is 26-year-old out-half Byrne, whose younger brother Harry missed out on potential involvement in the matchday 23 due to the hamstring injury he suffered against Munster last weekend.

Ross came off the bench to impressive effect in the European quarter-final against Exeter and Cullen has every faith in his ability to deliver in La Rochelle.

“Ross has played a lot of big games for us already,” said Cullen. “He’s had some pretty important ones for us over the years. With Johnny and Ross, we’re blessed to have the two of them here.

“It is what it is and Ciarán Frawley is back on the bench for us, he has done a good job over the last number of years.

“In terms of Ross, it’s a massive step up. You’re starting a semi-final in Europe but he has played big games for us before. You think back to the quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva [in 2019] when he steered us around the field well and he’s done that in the Guinness Pro14 as well. He has led the group well this week.

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“Ross has probably played more minutes for us over the last few seasons than Johnny has because Johnny has had more international minutes. In many ways, the players are more in sync with Ross because he has played more games.

“Ross has been a bit more on the periphery with Ireland and he is more ingrained in what we do in Leinster. It’s all subtle differences, neither is right or wrong. Ross has a very, very clear picture in terms of what we’re trying to do here.”

Cullen also said his team have a clear expectation of the quality of opposition they will face on Sunday, even if it is Leinster’s first European meeting with La Rochelle.

Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara’s side have impressed in the Top 14 and Champions Cup this season, with Cullen looking forward to a ferocious challenge.

“They’re a well-coached team by two coaches we have a lot of respect for. You can see the progression their team has made over the last couple of seasons.

“They have a good mix of big, powerful forwards, a dynamic back row, that Kiwi combination at 9 and 10 with Kerr-Barlow and West, and some dangerous players out wide in Raymond Rhule and Dulin.”

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Murray Kinsella

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