Understudies impress but Sexton still the main man
Published 20/09/2016 | 02:30
Things got a little more serious at Leinster yesterday as Johnny Sexton returned to the fray fully for the first time this season with a freshly shaven head. Gone is the bleach-blonde look of last week; there is serious business afoot for the Ireland out-half.
On Friday, barring a negative reaction to training from his shoulder, Sexton will begin his bid to be picked on successive Lions tours by going up against one of his chief rivals for the red No 10 shirt, Dan Biggar, at the RDS.
The 30-year-old is the main driver of on-pitch standards at the province and in contrast to last year, when he spent the first tranche of the season with Ireland at the World Cup and then returned almost broken by the experience, he has a clean run at it this time around.
The shoulder injury that prematurely ended his season after last year's Guinness Pro12 final delayed his return, but he will be happy to be back in action in time to get three matches under his belt before the European campaign kicks off in mid-October.
There are new relationships to build; with Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss no longer at the province he will be looking to build a rapport with Jamison Gibson-Park and Luke McGrath, while Noel Reid has taken over the No 12 shirt after Ben Te'o's departure and with Robbie Henshaw out injured.
In their first three games, Leinster have endured second-half dips in concentration and performance levels. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't happen with a leader like Sexton on the field.
"Naturally a bit of experience will help, but the players who are on the field are more than capable of seeing that," Leinster assistant coach Girvan Dempsey said yesterday.
"We've highlighted a few areas around our decision-making and systems where we could be better.
"Johnny's been excellent throughout pre-season, he's been one of the drivers the whole way throughout pre-season.
"To see the amount of work that he's put in to get back fit is incredible and it's a credit to him.
"He's been in here at six in the morning, doing his rehab and getting himself ready through his sessions.
"Even in the last week, the energy he brings to the group. . . so it's massive to have him back and it's been really helpful for him to have been around for the whole of pre-season."
In Sexton's absence, Joey Carbery has been earning rave reviews in the No 10 jersey.
With Ian Madigan now happily ensconced in Bordeaux, the role of deputy to Sexton's sheriff is up for grabs and a trio of young colts are vying for position.
Ross Byrne has been seen as the long-term candidate, but the former Ireland U-20 star has been troubled with a foot injury and has not been able to state his case.
Cathal Marsh was the next in line throughout last season, but he's been leap-frogged by Carbery, who caught the eye of Joe Schmidt during the Ulster Bank League final last season before impressing Graham Henry during his brief stint in Ireland during the summer.
Given how few games Sexton is allowed to play for his province - and his injury profile - the role of back-up out-half is a vital one at Leinster, and Dempsey is impressed with how the youngsters are handling it.
"Joey has gone really well," the former Ireland full-back said. "For a guy who is stepping up in his first season he has matured match on match and we see how he has grown from the pre-season into the league. You look at his all-round game and he has improved a lot.
"From a coach's point of view, you don't have to highlight a whole lot of things to him afterwards. He is very self-critical and he picks up straight away what he needs to work on.
"We're fortunate to have three guys there all with good qualities and strengths in different areas. Cathal Marsh got a lot of experience last year and brings that through his form. His running game and his defence are very good.
"Joey brings different elements in terms of his kicking and passing, as we have seen. Ross Byrne has just unfortunately been plagued with injury.
"He showed some good form pre-season against Ulster and then just got a couple of niggles and knocks like last year, so he just hasn't had a chance to get on the field.
"They are all very competitive and want to play. You look at what you need. Look at last year when we had injuries and again this year. You need strength in depth and players capable of making the step up when the call comes."
That call will come frequently but this Friday the main man will be back in harness.
For all that the youngsters have impressed, Sexton's fitness and form will be critical to any success Leinster have this season.