Leinster set for big week but doubts remain over Sexton

Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle beckons next Sunday afternoon

Leinster’s James Lowe and Michael Bent leave the pitch dejected after their Rainbow Cup loss to Munster. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster’s James Lowe and Michael Bent leave the pitch dejected after their Rainbow Cup loss to Munster. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Losing to Munster will always hurt but Leinster will take only their fourth defeat in their last 47 matches on the chin and move on to decidedly bigger things in next Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final away to La Rochelle.

Having overcome Exeter in their biggest game since last September, they now face the most successful forwards coach in their history, Jono Gibbes, and some bloke called Ronan O’Gara, who does have a little bit of history in European club rugby.

The two-time winner played more matches, 110, and accumulated more points, 1,365, than any other player in the tournament’s history.

“There’s some positives within the game because there’s young players coming in and getting valuable experience. Some players came back who had been out for a long while and they got some game time, which is good as well,” said Cullen in the fall-out from Saturday’s 27-3 defeat.

This was in particular reference to the returning Garry Ringrose and James Ryan, who each came through an hour or so unscathed and now look sure to start against La Rochelle.

“I thought they’ve been good this week,” said Cullen. “We’ll wait and see how everyone has pulled through and make some calls over the course of the next few days as to what we think is best for the challenge of La Rochelle.

“We have a lot of tight calls across the group but it’s good to have two players of their experience and calibre coming back into the mix at this time of year, which is a positive because off the back of the Six Nations and the run of games we’ve had. We definitely had a lengthy injury list so it’s good to have a couple of guys coming back into the mix now.”

Concussive episode

Monday in advance of a big game wouldn’t be the same without the primary concern being the well-being of their talismanic captain and outhalf Johnny Sexton, who hasn’t played since being forced off before the half-hour mark with another concussive episode against Exeter.

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” said Cullen. “So we’ll do the full array of tests and he’ll see whoever he needs to see and we’ll see how he comes through the week.”

Nor would Cullen give any inclination as to whether he expected Sexton to play or not. “TBC. TBC. It’s very early days yet. It’s still Saturday. Next Sunday is miles away,” he maintained jovially.

That Ross Byrne was also rested last Saturday suggests there is concern about Sexton, while cruelly for Byrne’s younger brother Harry, a tight hamstring forced him off after five minutes.

Injured in the warm-up for his scheduled full debut in the Champions Cup against Northampton in December, this was Byrne’s chance to catch the attention of the watching Andy Farrell and Mike Catt prior to the increasingly likely Fijian three-test tour.

“Hopefully not too bad,” ventured Cullen of his young 10.

Frustratingly, Caelan Doris was prevented from making his comeback due to the calf niggle which affected him in the captain’s run on Friday, making his availability for next Sunday unlikely.

“Yeah a bit more difficult certainly for Caelan,” admitted Cullen. “It would have been good to get him any game time really, just to see where he’s at but we’ll see how he turns that calf around. He’s trained over the last number of weeks which is the positive piece with him. He was raring to go so that’s just the way it played out.”

As for Jamison Gibson-Park, who hasn’t played since a four-minute cameo in the Pro14 final four weeks ago due to a hamstring injury suffered in training, Cullen said: “We’re just being conservative with him. It’s whether you take the step on any given week so that’s kind of the dilemma that we’re on so obviously the longer we leave him, the better he’ll be.

“But it’s just whether we’re willing to take a chance or not so we’ll manage him appropriately over the course of the week.”

Fundamentals

Taking this rare loss on the chin, Cullen said: “Munster just looked like a very hungry team there tonight so we were just a little bit off in terms of the contact piece. Rugby, for all it’s complexities, is based on some pretty solid fundamentals and Munster were better in those areas.”

Moving on, in almost the same breath, he added: “There’s a huge challenge for the club at La Rochelle next week against a couple of coaches that know us reasonably well with Jono Gibbes and Ronan as well.

“We know it’s going to be a great challenge. They’re in great form. You saw in their game against Sale how dangerous they are. They’ve got a good mix of power and pace like a lot of the French teams that we know. So, yeah, an amazing challenge going off there next week.”

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