'Business as normal' for Leinster as Sexton looks to minimise injury risks
A home game against Zebre a week before the Champions Cup again takes centre stage wouldn't usually garner that much interest outside of the die-hard Leinster supporters, but when you throw the return of Johnny Sexton into the mix, the focus will naturally intensify.
The out-half has spent the last seven weeks rehabbing his troublesome hamstring issues but his return is a massive boost not just for Leinster but for Ireland as well.
Montpellier will arrive in Dublin next Friday and behind the scenes, that is where the majority of Leinster's focus will lie, but welcoming back their key player for a game that the bookies see as a 35-point differential is indeed a welcome luxury for Leo Cullen.
Sexton must surely be fed up of having his fitness constantly talked about in public but as long as there is a lack of clarity surrounding him, questions will continue to be asked.
Contrary to misguided reports earlier this week, Sexton did in fact miss Ireland's training camp, but he did take part in Leinster's midweek session.
The 31-year old has spent countless hours working on his hamstrings in an effort to improve his "movement mechanics".
Leinster have coped just fine without their playmaker but they are an altogether different beast with Sexton pulling the strings and so too are Ireland, as the Six Nations looms large.
"He's ran the team well," Cullen said of Sexton, who also captains the team in the absence of Isa Nacewa, who picked up a knock last week.
"He did a good chunk of the training over the last few weeks as well. So it's business as normal really at Leinster in the preparation of the team, and Johnny's preparation has involved being in the mix in all of the team's preparations."
Surgery was never really on the cards for Sexton, according to Cullen who seemed hopeful more than confident that his player's injury problems are firmly behind him.
"We say 'recurring' but he's only had a few," Cullen said.
"He's had a few other soft tissue injuries over the last number of years, but in terms of hamstrings I don't think it's been a major problem. With what's coming up, it was important to take a more conservative course of action.
"You can always try and push guys back at various stages and I think time will tell how good this period has been for the player. But he's in good spirits, has trained well and is looking forward to getting back playing.
"It's just more in terms of movement mechanics, is probably the bigger issue. Certain players are more susceptible to injuries based on the way they move, and a lot of the time he spent in Santry was in terms of trying to tidy up the way he moves, so he's at less risk in the future. We will see how that progresses."
Cullen has made seven changes to the team that beat Ulster, and the immediate thoughts went to Zebre, the worst side in the Pro12, and how they are going to stop Leinster.
The team selection was made with a clear nod to what is coming down the line in Europe in the next two weeks. Neither Josh van der Flier (illness) nor Nacewa are risked but even still, the first-choice half-backs, centres and locks start against the hapless Italians.
"I watched a bit of Montpellier and Castres and they're both progressing well in the Top 14 at the moment," Cullen said.
"Montpellier we will play here next Friday - a big physical team. Castres are very dangerous, the way they like to play the game. They like to play with a lot of pace, particularly when they are at home - they're scoring a lot of tries at home.
"Again, it's going to be a tough challenge for us. We've got to focus on the Pro12 at the moment, focus on getting a good performance against a difficult Zebre team which pushed Edinburgh very close last week.
"Some guys, we're looking at certain combinations and making sure everyone is in good shape before heading into Europe again."
A bonus point win is an absolute must for Leinster this evening and they should have little problem in securing it.
Getting it done as early as possible while ensuring that Sexton gets through the game unscathed would constitute a good night's work.
Leinster - Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O'Loughlin; J Sexton (capt), L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Bent; D Toner, H Triggs; D Leavy, S O'Brien, J Conan. Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, T Furlong, R Ruddock, J Heaslip, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, N Reid.
Zebre- K Baker; M Bellini, M Pratichetti, T Castello, L Greeff; E Padovani, M Violi; A Lovotti, T D'Apice, P Ceccarelli; G Koegelenberg, G Biagi (capt); D Minnie, F Ruzza, A van Schalkwyk. Reps: C Festuccia, A De Marchi, G Roan, J Furno, M Mbandà, G Palazzani, G Venditti, S Bordoli.
REF - D Jones (WRU)
Leinster v Zebre,
Live, TG4, 7.35