Saturday 17 February 2018

David Kelly: Sexton and Biggar go head to head in early Lions audition

Leinster's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

So you wait three weeks for a leading contender for the Lions No 10 jersey to enter the fray and two come along at once.

Rugby fans will just have to remember not to wait for a bus this evening as Jonathan Sexton and Dan Biggar come face to face in an intriguing early-season pot-boiler.

Despite the encouraging displays from their respective understudies in recent weeks. Leinster and Ospreys haven't hesitated in grasping the first opportunity to plunge their primary pivots into action in what should be an epic individual and collective battle at the RDS.

And Leinster captain Isa Nacewa is anticipating an immediate impact from Sexton, who steps into the role filled so resourcefully by breakthrough star Joey Carbery for the past three weeks.

"Johnny's experience speaks for itself," says Nacewa. "He's a world-class ten. He loves the pressure and he loves the responsibility of being out there leading.

"He's helped Joey all season, just as he's helped the other tens. There is a good feeling within the group giving back to one another, helping each other through the season.

"Joey has been great, just as all the other tens have been great. He's exciting to play with, just as Johnny is. There is good competition there.

"But they are different types of players.

"Johnny takes a lot of weight off the rest of the guys around him and uses that. That's how he likes to run the game."

Sexton is joined by Luke McGrath at scrum-half in one of six changes to the side that eventually saw off Edinburgh last Friday.

Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong come in to the front-row, with Sean Cronin continuing at hooker.

Mick Kearney partners Devin Toner in the second-row, having lined out for Clontarf in the All-Ireland League last weekend.

The final change is in the back-row as Josh van der Flier starts at openside flanker, with two-try Dan Leavy unfortunate to lose out; Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip complete the line-up.

Ospreys also change their scrum-half, with Rhys Webb coming in, while Sam Davies switches from out-half to full-back to accommodate Biggar.

"There's no bigger challenge in the Pro12 than going to the RDS to face a fully loaded Leinster team so we know we're in for a tough evening," said coach Steve Tandy, whose captain Alun-Wyn Jones makes his 200th league appearance.

"We've made a positive start to the season but we know it doesn't count for anything at this point. We have to go up a few levels."

Leinster's Leo Cullen wants an 80-minute performance.

"We definitely need to improve on our second halves," he said.

"We scored three tries against Glasgow away from home and didn't score a try in the second half; we scored four in the first half last week, we only scored very late in the game and we were defending for large periods.

"There are challenges with players coming back at different stages, guys have been filtering back at different stages.

"Nothing beats playing. You can do all the training that you want but there's nothing quite simulates that, and that's a challenge.

"It's something that we've got to be conscious of. I'm not making excuses but we certainly need to be better."

Leinster's formidable home record, although loosened in Europe of late, remains the bedrock of their domestic challenge; their unbeaten run will extend to 17 should they rein in the rampant Welshmen this evening.

The Ospreys have set a remarkable standard of points accumulation: they have managed a try-scoring bonus point in each of their last seven league games, albeit one of those was a defeat at home to Ulster when both were chasing play-off slots at the tail end of last season.

Leinster, who have endured their fair share of Pro12 final heartache against the Ospreys in the past, have only lost one in nine to the visitors since losing the 2012 Pro12 final here (at that time, a second final defeat in three seasons).

Leinster failed their first significant test of the season in Glasgow; losing to another title rival would prompt serious introspection even at this early stage.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster - Z Kirchner; I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, N Reid, D Kearney; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, M Kearney; J Murphy, J Van Der Flier, J Heaslip.

Reps: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Ross, R Molony, R Ruddock, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery.

Ospreys - S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, J Matavesi, B John; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, S Baldwin, D Arhip, L Ashley, A Wyn Jones (capt), J King, J Tipuric, T Ardron. Reps: S Parry, N Smith, M Fia, B Davies, D Baker, T Habberfield, D Howells, D Evans.

Ref - M Mitrea (FIR).

Leinster v Ospreys,

Live, TG4, 7.35

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