Leinster and Ulster meet in Pro14 cracker; Villa to field youth side in Liverpool tie

The Morning Sports Briefing: Keep ahead of the game with ‘The Irish Times’ sports team

Johnny Sexton is fit to lead Leinster against Ulster on Friday night. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Johnny Sexton is fit to lead Leinster against Ulster on Friday night. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Tonight Leinster welcome Ulster to the RDS in one of the matches of the Pro14 season (kick-off 7.35pm). Dan McFarland’s side travel south currently in pole position in Conference A, with 10 wins from 10 matches. The defending champions are in second place - 10 points behind Ulster with two games in hand - and are looking to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat to Connacht, their first in 26 fixtures. And the importance of the match has been reflected in Leo Cullen’s Leinster selection - Johnny Sexton leads a side of full internationals, with Jordan Larmour returning from injury and Ross Byrne starting in the alien position of outside centre. As Gavin Cummiskey writes this morning, it is a mouth-watering fixture - but the hosts should have the edge: “On paper, Leinster have plenty to spare. In reality, Leinster by whatever margin is determined by a combination of Sexton’s health and Ulster’s physicality.” And one particularly intriguing battle will come between number eights Caelan Doris and Marcell Coetzee, writes John O’Sullivan.

A number of this weekend’s FA Cup fixtures look set to be hit heavily by Covid-19 cases. Tonight Aston Villa are set field a team of youth players as they welcome Liverpool to Villa Park for their third round tie (7.45pm), with Dean Smith’s first team squad and staff all isolating due to a number of positive tests. Southampton could also be awarded a walkover in their tie with Shrewsbury Town, after the Shropshire club also returned a high number of cases. Tonight’s other fixture is an all-Premier League affair, with Wolves welcoming Crystal Palace to Molineux.

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