Connacht vs Leinster: Johnny Sexton returns to captain visitors

Luke McGrath replaces Jamison Gibson-Park as Bundee Aki returns for hosts

Champions Cup: Connacht vs Leinster, Friday April 8th, the Sportsground, kick-off 8pm (live on BT Sport)

Bundee Aki and Johnny Sexton each return for their respective provinces for the first time since January for the historic Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 first leg tie at a sold-out Sportsground on Friday evening.

All but three of Ireland’s starting XV for the 2022 Six Nations finale when Ireland sealed the Triple Crown and second place in the Championship will line-up at the kick-off as 15 of the match-day 23 from three weeks ago renew acquaintances.

In addition to Aki, Connacht welcome back Gavin Thornbury for his first start in 11 months after an impressive cameo off the bench in last Saturday’s win away to Benetton as well as club captain Jarrad Butler, who missed the trip to Treviso.


Luke McGrath is also restored at halfback ahead of Jamison Gibson-Park to partner Sexton, and there is also a new frontfive compared to the win over Munster in Thomond Park last weekend, with Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong restored to the front-row while Ross Molony and the Connacht-bound Josh Murphy form the second-row.

Four of last week’s tight five along with Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne move to the bench.

For Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham, on the bench against Scotland, they will be coming up against a dozen teammates from that day, including Robbie Henshaw, who was a replacement for Aki that day and starts alongside Garry Ringrose on the latest return to his old stomping ground.

Commenting on the team announcement, Andy Friend said: “There’s a huge sense of excitement among all the players and management for tomorrow night. These are the type of games you want to be involved in, and with a capacity crowd behind us it’s going to be a great occasion and one we firmly believe we can win.

“We have over 45 players training between our pros and integrated academy players so that’s a great place to be at this stage of the season, and it’s given the coaches some headaches for our squad selection as well.”

Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita; Cian Pendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.

Replacements: Dylan Tiernan-Martin, Tiete Tuimauga, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali'I, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Sammy Arnold.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Josh Murphy; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Ala'alatoa, Devin Toner, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)