Johnny Sexton set to return as Leinster face buoyant Connacht

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster shrug off injury worries in upcoming game with Exeter

Munster and Leinster return to European action and the novel concept of the Heineken Champions Cup last-16 two-legged ties in contrasting fashion after Leo Cullen's side cemented their place atop the United Rugby Championship (URC) table with Saturday's 34-19 bonus point win at Thomond Park.

Leinster face a Connacht side buoyed by a gutsy win away to Benetton on Saturday and with Bundee Aki likely to return at the Sportsground next Friday (kick-off 8pm). But Leinster for their part are likely to restore Johnny Sexton while Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and James Ryan are all not far away from a return.

Ross Byrne has started all eight of Leinster's matches since Sexton orchestrated the 64-7 European win away to Bath in January. "Ross carries a huge load for the team in many ways," said Cullen after Saturday's win.

“Nobody looks back on the season and thinks about the league, they think about who won it, not the individual 18 games. But they all have the same importance in terms of accumulating points. Ross has been excellent.

"Johnny, coming back off the Six Nations, trained well this week and had a really positive energy around the place. It's important to have that level of competition. You remember last year Johnny got that bang in the Exeter game and you've less numbers to manage.

“The nature of this time of year, there’s never been as many play-off games. They’re great if you keep winning them, but if you lose you’ve a lot of weeks off. It’s about keeping that energy for what we hope is to advance in those playoff games, but we can’t look too far ahead.”

Scheduled matches

Indeed, as things stand, Leinster have only five more scheduled matches plus a URC quarter-final, but ideally they will hope to have another 11 games in their season.

“Now it’s just delivering on some of the bigger days, which are the playoff games. It’s a slightly unusual dynamic in terms of the two-leg piece, but the group are in a reasonably good place now.

“It’s a short week but you can still work hard, make sure we’re clear in the plan and what it is we’re trying to achieve when we go down to Galway on Friday night.”

Whereas Cullen may well have more room to rotate, Munster face a reviving Exeter side (who beat Bath 42-22 on Saturday) in the first leg at Sandy Park next Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) after which comes the second leg at Thomond Park and then what Johann van Graan conceded was a must-win URC tie away to Ulster.

What's more, Gavin Coombes is undergoing a scan on an ankle injury which forced his withdrawal in the 28th minute against Leinster, and well though Alex Kendellen played as his replacement, van Graan admitted: "It's a big concern for us with what's ahead."

Van Graan is relatively optimistic about some of those ruled out of last Saturday's game, but not all. "Andrew Conway, it's safe to say he won't make next week. I'm pretty worried about Tadhg [Beirne] and Dave [Kilcoyne]. We'll wait until Monday and see how they are.

“Hopefully, JK [Jean Kleyn], Mike [Haley] and Zeebs [Simon Zebo] will be back in. Hopefully we get some good news because in knock-out rugby you need your best players on the pitch.

“It’s going to be foreign to all 16 teams,” van Graan said of the upcoming two-legged last-16 round. “I actually spoke to one or two football coaches, [Because] if you look at the way that football does it, it’s like the end of the game after the first leg is actually half-time. So whether you win or lose, it’s all going to come down to the last game here at Thomond Park in two weeks’ time.”

Wilted

Although a heavily rotated Ulster side eventually wilted in the heat and altitude of Loftus Versfeld to lose 34-16 to the Bulls on Saturday, they remain second in the URC table above Glasgow on points difference, and Dan McFarland clearly had one eye on next Saturday's first leg against five-time winners Toulouse at Le Stadium (kick-off 4.15 local time/3.15 French).

Despite welcoming back six of their French Grand Slam-winning contingent, including Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, Toulouse lost away to local rivals Castres 19-13 to leave them fifth in the Top 14.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Ronan O'Gara's La Rochelle and their west coast rivals Bordeaux Bègles has been ratcheted up in advance of next Saturday's first leg at Stade Chaban-Delmas following the first part of the clubs' trilogy last Saturday night.

After La Rochelle's 16-15 win in Bordeaux, which lifted La Rochelle to third in the table, O'Gara and his counterpart Christophe Urios had an angry tete-a-tete – almost literally, as the two touched foreheads. It should be a spicy renewal both on the pitch and on the sidelines over the next two weeks.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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