Leinster prepare for lift-off as Lions return against Edinburgh

Johnny Sexton aims to help side get back on track as he chases points record

Johnny Sexton, who captains the side, is only nine points away from becoming Leinster’s all-time highest scorer. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

With the return of four of their Lions quintet comes heightened excitement and expectancy. When Johnny Sexton leads out a side also featuring Seán O'Brien at number eight and Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong in the frontrow, Leinster will be expected to win, and win well, leaving them on something of a hiding to nothing.

Mindful too that the next instalment of their rivalry with Munster follows eight days later at the Aviva Stadium, swiftly followed by their opening European Champions Cup games at high-flying, big-spending Montpellier, there's a sense that Leinster's season is about to hit lift-off.

Last weekend’s 38-19 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was the first time that Leinster had failed to gain a league point in a Pro14 encounter since their visit to Munster on St Stephen’s Day. Leo Cullen reckons that has sharpened minds.

“When we looked at the start of the season, we could see a lot of banana skins. We overcame our first three games. We were off to South Africa, very much into the unknown. We get another bonus-point win even though I thought we were a little bit off against the Kings. Then, we came unstuck.”


“When you lose a game, it definitely does focus the mind more. It is a pity you have to lose a game for that to happen. But, that’s the reality of where we are. It is another tricky assignment for us this week.”

“Hopefully, we will get a big crowd. It is important for the players, playing in front of their home crowd. They want to produce special moments the crowd can get behind. So many players come through the system here to be in front of friends and family.”

“Hopefully, that leads into such an important part of the season. History has shown us, [if] you start slow in Europe in particular, you can come unstuck quite quickly. It is the feeling of ‘we are at the start of the season now’ – back at home at the RDS. Hopefully, we can kick on from there.”

Fergus McFadden and Luke McGrath return from injury, while Scott Fardy and Devin Toner are back in the secondrow having missed the mini-tour to South Africa due to impending fatherhood. Toner’s wife Mary gave birth to a baby boy, Max, while Fardy’s wife Penny is still expecting.

Rory O’Loughlin, an early replacement for Isa Nacewa last week, starts at outside centre, while Seán Cronin and Rhys Ruddock are also promoted from the bench.

The game is also notable for it being Jordi Murphy’s first game at the RDS in more than a year, while in addition to captaining the side, Sexton is only nine points away from becoming Leinster’s all-time highest scorer. Felipe Contepomi currently sits on top with 1,225 points with Sexton on 1,217.

Leinster hold an 18-10 head-to-head record in this competition over Edinburgh, having won six of the last seven meetings. Their record against the Scottish outfit is particularly impressive at home, with their last defeat to Edinburgh in Dublin being at Donnybrook in 2005. Leinster haven't lost a regular season Pro14 encounter at the RDS since Newport Gwent Dragons visited in February 2015.

Consecutive defeats

Edinburgh have suffered consecutive defeats at home to Benetton Rugby and away to Scarlets. Richard Cockerill has responded by making nine changes to their starting XV. Glenn Bryce and Dougie Fife come into the back three. Scotland Sevens star James Johnstone makes his first start of the season in midfield, and Jason Tovey makes his first start of the season alongside Sam Hidalgo-Clyne in a new halfback combination.

Simon Berghan and Darryl Marfo start at prop, lock Fraser McKenzie captains the side on his first start of the season, while Cornell du Preez comes in at number eight.

“We’ve made a few changes to the side, but we have depth across the squad,” said Cockerill. “The guys who’ve come in will provide us with competition and I expect them to fight for a place in this team. If we match the levels of desire that were shown against Scarlets last weekend, I have every confidence that we can come away with a positive result.”

Cullen is expecting a fired-up reaction from a team coached by his former Leicester team-mate.

“Knowing Richard Cockerill well, I know the mindset and approach they’ll take into the game. We need to be ready physically for what’s going to be coming at us. Munster we know next week is a huge challenge and into Europe after that and we can talk maybe a little bit later about the pool we have. The other three teams in our group I see are top of their relevant leagues or conferences so it’s a huge challenge ahead of us.”

Leinster have not had the best of preparations, only returning from South Africa on Monday and coming together as a squad for the first time on Wednesday. A third of their team are making their first appearances of the season, but Joey Carbery’s return to form against the Cheetahs adds to the likelihood that their quality should come through.

LEINSTER: Joey Carbery; Fergus McFadden, Rory O'Loughlin, Noel Reid, Dave Kearney; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin; Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner; Scott Fardy, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Seán O'Brien.

Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour.

EDINBURGH: Glenn Bryce; Tom Brown, James Johnstone, Phil Burleigh, Dougie Fife; Jason Tovey, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; Darryl Marfo, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan; Fraser McKenzie (capt), Grant Gilchrist; Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Cornell du Preez.

Replacements: Neil Cochrane, Murray McCallum, Kevin Bryce, Anton Bresler, John Hardie, Nathan Fowles, Blair Kinghorn, Robbie Fruean.

Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 66th competition game)

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times