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Johnny Sexton to start for Leinster against Bulls while Andrew Porter and Gary Ringrose return

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Johnny Sexton of Leinster. Phot: Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton of Leinster. Phot: Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton of Leinster. Phot: Sportsfile

Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton will shrug off his disappointing summer of inactivity by making a rare start in a league opener as Leinster kick off their United Rugby Championship campaign against the Bulls in the Aviva tomorrow.

Leo Cullen’s men are boosted by the returns by Andrew Porter, who would have toured for the Lions but for an untimely foot injury, and Garry Ringrose, who may have featured in South Africa had he not been hampered by shoulder troubles.

After playing most of his senior rugby at tighthead prop, Porter will switch sides to his original position of loosehead for the game and looks set to get an extended run in the position in the coming weeks.

Healy, meanwhile, will make his first appearance on the tighthead side of the scrum at the age of 33 when he comes off the bench for new signing Michael Ala'alatoa.

The veteran has won more than 100 caps and played for the Lions as a No 1, but now he is taking on the task of learning a new skill that could prolong his career.

Max Deegan is also primed for a stint on the field for the first time since October 2020 while Ciaran Frawley offers a further fillip to the province as he returns from injury to link up with Ringrose in midfield.

Dan Sheehan starts at hooker with Michael Ala’alatoa making his competitive debut at tighthead prop.

Ross Molony and James Ryan will form an all-St Michael’s College second row unit and in the back row, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris complete the starting XV for Leo Cullen’s men.

Hugo Keenan, Rory O’Loughlin and James Lowe are the back three; in the centre, Ciarán Frawley will also get his first taste of Leinster action since last season as will Garry Ringrose beside him, with both players now fully recovered from shoulder injuries.

In the half backs, Cullen has chosen the same pair that started against Quins in an impressive pre-season romp with the experienced duo of Luke McGrath and captain Sexton teaming up.

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Cullen hailed Porter and Healy for embracing a new challenge ahead of the URC opener.

“It has been in our thoughts for a while really. Andrew initially came through as a loosehead and it is something he has done in Irish camp as well. They are pretty open minded the two lads and it has gone well from a training point of view so now we will get to see it in a proper test environment, against the Bulls. So, I am looking forward to seeing what it looks like in reality," Cullen said.

“For Cian, playing tighthead is a big ask but that is the mindset of both these fellas is that they are keen to do it, and also with some of the resources we have, if Andrew wanted to move to loosehead, or certainly try out, we needed a little more cover at tighthead. Vakh Abdalaze has obviously come back from a long-standing back injury, so it was great to see him playing two weeks ago.

“So the guys have a remarkable mindset, Andrew and Cian in particular. They have certain similarities although they are different characters. They have really focussed on this over the course of pre-season. We were talking about playing Cian (at tighthead) in that Harlequins game but the way it unfolded, but we are looking forward to seeing how the lads go.

“We have a block of five games and I watched the Lions and that was the thing that intrigued me the most how Trevor Nyakane played tighthead in the first Test and then at loosehead in the second Test and the impact he made. There is no reason in my mind why the two lads can’t have a similar impact. They have that ability. They don’t get bogged down unnecessarily. They don’t get overawed by challenges. If anything they embrace that challenge.

“Not so much for Andrew – he is a loosehead, he is a converted tighthead. We went through the process of being open minded and seeing what it looks like and we have seen a fair amount over the course of pre-season which gives us confidence that we can persist with it for a period. Cian, it is probably more of a challenge for him than it is for Andrew. It is probably a bit more straightforward for Andrew.”

Leinster Rugby (caps in brackets)

15. Hugo Keenan (30)

14. Rory O’Loughlin (87)

13. Garry Ringrose (86)

12. Ciarán Frawley (35)

11. James Lowe (52)

10. Johnny Sexton (173) CAPTAIN

9. Luke McGrath (151)

1. Andrew Porter (77)

2. Dan Sheehan (13)

3. Michael Ala’alatoa (0)

4. Ross Molony (116)

5. James Ryan (50)

6. Rhys Ruddock (188)

7. Josh van der Flier (98)

8. Caelan Doris (40)

Replacements:

16. James Tracy (129)

17. Ed Byrne (70)

18. Cian Healy (231)

19. Ryan Baird (27)

20. Max Deegan (65)

21. Jamison Gibson-Park (101)

22. Ross Byrne (104)

23. Jamie Osborne (6)


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