Irish rugby holds its breath as box-office Johnny Sexton returns

Ireland and Leinster’s talisman back in the saddle for Zebre after latest injury lay-off

Leinster v Zebre

RDS, 7.35pm – live TG4

Confirmed Johnny Sexton information: The 31 year old was not in Ireland camp earlier this week. Nor did he train with Leinster on Monday. Where he was is irrelevant but where he is playing on this first Friday in 2017 matters.

It will be Sexton’s first outing since the second hamstring twang 17 minutes into that mangling All Blacks affair on November 19th. That’s seven weeks rehabilitating the latest in a long list of injuries suffered by Irish rugby’s most prized possession.

We may as well regurgitate the Sexton questions and Leo Cullen answers ahead of this all but sown up five pointer. Just so everyone knows the score.

How frustrating has it been, Leo?

“No different than any other player that is out injured. When you are out injured it is frustrating because players enjoy when they are playing the game...We have several others out at the moment.”

But it is different. Because Jonathan Sexton is a once in a generation player.

Cullen accepted the one-game-at-a-time line would not wash and mentioned Montpellier’s arrival next Friday along with the journey to Castres seven days later.

But Johnny’s health was the gallery’s sole interest. Because Sexton used to win the biggest matches, because Sexton sells tickets to the RDS and Aviva stadium that remain empty when he is not playing.

"He bosses you around the place," said Luke McGrath, who must adjust from his senior halfback role of late alongside Ross Byrne. "He's very eager to get going. From a nine's point of view it is great to have him outside, he is constantly talking, giving out to you."

If the Pro 12 ever want to truly market their product they must mic-up Sexton or Seanie O’Brien and await the viral response. Guaranteed.

Leo, is Johnny coming back more robust?

“Time will tell,” was the honest response.

Because nobody really knows. Not the experts out in Sexton's temporary second home, Santry Sports Clinic, and maybe not even the man himself.

Anyone find out what exactly was the recurring problem?

“When you say recurring he has only had a few other soft tissue injuries over the last couple of years,” Cullen responded. “In terms of hamstrings I don’t think it has been a major problem. With what’s coming up it was appropriate to take a more conservative course of action.

“Time will tell how good this period has been for the player.”

Was surgery an option?

“There was no talk of surgery. It was more in terms of movement mechanics. Certain players are more susceptible to injuries based on the way they move. A lot of the time spend in Santry was to try and tidy up the way he moves so he is at less risk in the future.”

Jamie Heaslip springs to mind. The smoothest mover and shaker in Irish rugby takes a seat on the bench as Jack Conan gets a deserved run at number eight.

That selection is as temporary as Isa Nacewa, who Leinster have understandably flogged this season, getting the entire weekend off. Zane Kirchner runs at 15 in the continued absence of Rob Kearney.

“Isa has played a lot of minutes, he doesn’t have the same restrictions as other Irish guys and he took a knock as well at the weekend. We are just trying to manage him as best as possible.”

Josh van der Flier is laid out by a winter bug so O’Brien moves to openside with Dan Leavy getting a start at blindside.

Oh and Sexton is captain as Heaslip is held alongside Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong and even Rhys Ruddock; heavy artillery that will welcome that gargantuan Montpellier pack.

But Sexton remains the focus. Completing 40 minutes here will give Leinster and Ireland supporters, along with coaches and teammates, a confidence boost before the toughest rugby months.

Because he is different to every other injured player.

Leinster: Zane Kirchner; Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Rory O'Loughlin; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, James Tracy, Michael Bent; Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs; Dan Leavy, Sean O'Brien, Jack Conan. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Noel Reid.

Zebre: Kurt Baker; Mattia Bellini, Matteo Pratichetti, Tommaso Castello, Lloyd Greeff; Edoardo Padovani, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Tommaso D'Apice, Pietro Ceccarelli; Gideon Koegelenberg, George Biagi (capt); Derick Minnie, Federico Ruzza, Andries Van Schalkwyk. Replacements: Carlo Festuccia, Andrea De Marchi, Guillermo Roan, Joshua Furno, Maxime Mbandà, Guglielmo Palazzani, Giovanbattista Venditti, Serafin Bordoli.

Referee: Dan Jones (Wales).

Betting: Leinster to win 10/11 (with 34 point handicap).

Forecast: Leinster bonus point victory.