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Johnny Sexton close to a return as Leo Cullen backs Ross Byrne to make 'massive step up'

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Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Leo Cullen has revealed that Johnny Sexton will not travel with the Leinster squad for Sunday's Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle, but the head coach did have a positive update on the fitness of his captain.

Sexton had already been ruled out of this weekend's European showdown due to his latest head injury and although he had been expected to be part of the non-playing travelling squad, he will remain in Dublin.

However, Cullen said that Sexton is not far off returning to action, which means that his hopes of making this summer's Lions tour remain very much alive.

Ross Byrne will start in Sexton's absence against La Rochelle, with Cullen reiterating the trust that the coaches and players have in the deputy out-half.

"With Johnny, we were just keen for him to see some specialists and experts in the field and ultimately we have a lot of faith in Ross as well,” Cullen said.

“We're on the conservative side with some of the decision-making so we didn't try to pressure Johnny. People will have seen he is training with the group, we're just keeping him out of the contact piece at the moment.

"He's not a million miles away from being available so that was just the decision we made and that everyone came to. So we need to crack on with the group that we have.

"Ross has played a lot of big games for us already. He's had some pretty important ones for us over the years.

“With Johnny and Ross, we're blessed to have the two of them here. Harry (Byrne) is incredibly unlucky even with the mechanism of his injury against Munster - he's scrambling back and his leg gets caught up in the air and gets overstretched. So we never reallygot to see him bar the first five minutes of the game.

"It is what it is and Ciaran (Frawley) is back on the bench for us, he has done a good job over the last number of years.

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"In terms of Ross, it's a massive step up. You're starting a semi-final in Europe but he has played big games for us before. You think back to the quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva when he steered us around the field well and he's done that in the GuinnessPRO14 as well.

"He has led the group well this week.

"Ross has probably played more minutes for us over the last few seasons than Johnny has because Johnny has had more international minutes. In many ways, the players are more in sync with Ross because he has played more games. It depends how far you want tolook back but we're lucky to have the two of them here.

"Ross has been a bit more on the periphery with Ireland and he is more ingrained in what we do in Leinster. It's all subtle differences, neither is right or wrong. Ross has a very, very clear picture in terms of what we're trying to do here."

Cullen is relishing the challenge of going up against a strong La Rochelle outfit, who are led by two men he knows well in Jono Gibbes and Ronan O'Gara.

"They're a well-coached team by two coaches we have a lot of respect for,” the Leinster boss added.

“You can see the progression their team has made over the last couple of seasons. They have a good mix of big, powerful forwards, a dynamic back row, that Kiwi combination at 9 and 10 with (Tawera) Kerr-Barlow and (Ihaia) West, and some dangerous players outwide in Raymound Rhule and (Brice) Dulin."


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