Injured Johnny Sexton out of Leinster team to play Ulster
Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath also miss out while Iain Henderson starts for Ulster
Leinster’s Ross Byrne will take the place of injured Johnny Sexton for their Champions Cup quarter-final clash with Ulster. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Champions Cup quarter-final: Leinster v Ulster
Kick-off: 5.45pm. Venue: Lansdowne Road. On TV: BT Sport. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5pm.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen seeks to dilute the significance of Johnny Sexton, Jack McGrath and Rob Kearney failing to make the starting XV to face Ulster in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final at a sold-out Aviva stadium, but each selection reverberates through Irish rugby not only this weekend but as far as the World Cup in Japan later this year.
Sexton is ruled out with “a bit of tightness after playing a lot of games during the Six Nations” with Cullen quickly switching the focus onto how well Ross Byrne has done in a blue jersey (having been denied access to a green jersey by Connacht’s Jack Carty).
But Sexton’s condition remains a serious concern. The 33-year-old provincial captain has not featured for Leinster since the quarrelsome Munster loss in Limerick on December 29th. He was also forced out of the Scotland game in Murrayfield on February 9th to undergo a head injury assessment. This season he has only played 15 games in total, finishing two.
“Just a little niggle,” Cullen adds. “A muscle on his leg, I’m not sure what it is called. We have other big games coming up, he’ll be ok.”
On Jordan Larmour starting at fullback ahead of Kearney, whose brother Dave is named on the wing instead of James Lowe (indirectly cut due to Devin Toner’s ankle injury), Cullen guided the media towards the big picture but there is no masking the fact an ultra-solid 32-year-old has been dropped for an electric 21 year old.
Selection for the 31 man World Cup squad looms above all these decisions.
“Rob is ok. This selection is always difficult for us, always.”
Cullen highlights the 10 week gap since Leinster were a fully functioning squad. 55 players have been used so far this season.
“Jordan played [fullback] against France and thought he did well during that game. He played the Toulouse game in round five. He’s exciting at 15, the challenge is to get him ball in space, because he is dangerous. We think he is suited to the challenge we think the game may be, but there is no guarantees of this.”
Perhaps the biggest selection, or non-selection, is Ed Byrne providing the loosehead prop cover behind Cian Healy.
Reports linking Jack McGrath with a move to Ulster next season just gained serious momentum. Cullen was asked how a capped British and Irish Lion against New Zealand in the summer of 2017 can fall so far down the pecking order.
“Ed has been in great form for us and Cian has been in good form during the Six Nations. It’s another close call.
“Jack had an injury earlier on in the season so it is a little bit of form.
“Ed has gone well, played plenty of minutes during the Six Nations because he stayed with Leinster while other guys who get pulled and dragged can be a little harder to showcase what they are able to do.”
At 29 McGrath should be moving into his prime years but instead finds himself in no man’s land having also lost the Ireland squad jersey to Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne.
Another close call sees Seán O’Brien – another Lion from 2017 – edging Dan Leavy – the 2018 Grand Slam starter – in the openside slot.
At least Leavy and Kearney make the bench but McGrath’s non selection confirms his slide to third choice loosehead prop.
LEINSTER: J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R O’Loughlin, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath, C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; S Fardy, J Ryan; R Ruddock (captain), S O’Brien, J Conan.
Replacements: J Tracy, E Byrne, A Porter, M Kearney, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, N Reid, R Kearney.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Best (captain), M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, W Herbst, A O’Connor, S Reidy, D Shanahan, L Marshall, A Kernohan.