URC: Leinster v DHL Stormers, RDS, Friday, 7.35 – Live on TG4 and Premier Sports
There is reasonable doubt that outhalf and captain Johnny Sexton will play again for Leinster before the end of the season. Speaking in the RDS before Leinster face the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship on Friday night, coach Leo Cullen said Sexton was seeking medical advice and that he could not tell when he will return to competitive rugby.
Sexton’s injury occurred when he became involved in a collapsing maul during Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning game against England in the Six Nations last weekend.
“I don’t know is the honest answer to that question,” said Cullen when asked if Leinster expected to have him back before the end of the season.
“I’m not expecting anything. I’m hopeful but I’m not sure unfortunately. He is going to see a specialist. Yeah, we will see how we go.”
When pressed on whether he expected his captain to be available for Leinster’s game in the European Champions Cup against Ulster in Aviva Stadium in just over a week’s time, Cullen could not say.
“Stop. I don’t know. He’ll see a specialist, we’ll see,” said the Leinster coach. “You heard the response. Because I don’t know the answer to the question. Can’t say with certainty.
“So, what’s the outcome when he does see a specialist, it is make the best of the situation you are in. Whatever time that is.”
Ireland’s 37-year-old captain gingerly walked off the pitch seven minutes from the end of the match against England, but Cullen was confident that he has players at his disposal that can step up against Ulster and a Stormers team that have arrived in Dublin with their South African international contingent of players.
Springboks Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie and Damian Willemse have all been included in the defending champions’ side.
“So, if Johnny’s not there, whoever it is ... Harry [Byrne] plays this weekend. Ross [Byrne] has stepped in during the Six Nations at different points,” said Cullen. “It’s been an amazing experience for Ross when you think back to early in the season.
“He only comes in late for that Australian game. So again, it’s making the best of the situation you find yourself in that moment in time. Ross was there. He is ready for the opportunity. Harry had led the team well in that position.
“Young Charlie Tector, he is in the academy. Obviously, Ciarán Frawley is back for us and can play 10 as well. Whoever is there, it is about that they can deliver for the team. We are very lucky that we’ve got some good, experienced players there.”
Cullen singled out the Stormers’ outhalf Manie Libbok and inside centre Damian Willemse as players who can break games. Given their quality he expects to face a pragmatic type of game with lots of aerial pressure, with the Stormers looking for breaking ball, which creates the unstructured, loose scenarios that they thrive on.
Up front they have obvious power. The entire frontrow are Springboks, captain Kitshoff, Dweba and Malherbe, as well as Orie in the secondrow.
“They have got game-breaking players who can create something out of very little. In particular Manie Libbok at number 10 and Damian Willemse at number 12, who are very creative,” said Cullen.
“Allied to that they have the power part to the game as well, forwards with plenty of experience, guys who have been involved in a Rugby World Cup winning team, so it is a great test.”
Rob Russell comes on to the right wing with the injured Jamie Osborne not available. Jordan Larmour starts at fullback after playing on the wing against Edinburgh, joining Russell and left wing Dave Kearney in the back three.
Frawley moves to inside centre to partner Liam Turner, while they retain the halfback pairing of Harry Byrne and Luke McGrath. The pack is unchanged from the team that faced Edinburgh three weeks ago.
“There are a few guys who have been away during the Six Nations,” said Cullen. “They will start to make their way back and then we will put together a different type of plan for next week. It is a standalone game against a team who have brought all their Springboks.
“So, our guys are getting excited by the challenge and hope the crowd will be excited too.”
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Rob Russell, Liam Turner, Ciarán Frawley, Dave Kearney; Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath; Michael Milne, John McKee, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Scott Penny, Max Deegan.
Replacements: Lee Barron, Ed Byrne, Vakhtang Abdaladze, Brian Deeny, Will Connors, Nick McCarthy, Charlie Tector, Ben Brownlee.
STORMERS: Clayton Blommetjies; Suleiman Hartzenberg, Dan du Plessis, Damian Willemse, Seabelo Senatla; Manie Libbok, Paul de Wet; Steven Kitshoff (capt), Joseph Dweba, Frans Malherbe; Ruben van Heerden, Marvin Orie; Deon Fourie, Ben-Jason Dixon, Hacjivah Dayimani.
Replacements: JJ Kotze, Brok Harris, Neethling Fouche, Ernst van Rhyn, Willie Engelbrecht, Marcel Theunissen, Herschel Jantjies, Jean-Luc du Plessis.
Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU).