IT’S HARD TO remember the last time we saw as much of Johnny Sexton in September as we have this month, and certainly Leo Cullen’s selection for tomorrow’s trip west is a firm statement of intent from the defending Pro14 champions.
The pain of April’s humiliating defeat to Connacht at the Sportsground has engendered talk of revenge this week, and a full strength Leinster team will be looking to reassert their dominance on this fixture come Saturday teatime [KO 5.15pm, TG4/eir Sport].
Sexton knows what to expect at the Sportsground tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Sexton’s inclusion, along with that of Leinster’s front-line internationals, is telling and gives some understanding of Cullen’s thinking ahead of next week’s clash with Munster, and the opening two rounds of Champions Cup action.
The round five game will represent the Ireland out-half’s third Pro14 start on the bounce, which in itself is highly unusual, particularly at this early stage of the season, in a World Cup year of all years.
But Leinster, with three wins from four at the start of their title defence, know the size of the task awaiting them in Galway, no more so than after the humbling of five months ago when a second-string outfit were put to the sword by a Connacht performance inspired by the retiring John Muldoon.
Tensions have been stoked this week, too, after Cian Healy said he took offence to Muldoon’s late conversion, while Luke Fitzgerald suggested Connacht ‘hate’ Leinster and that the feeling is mutual after a couple of incidents in recent years.
Sexton, for his part, feels there has always been a rivalry between the provinces.
“Was [the needle] not always there?” he asked. “I always found that rivalry [there] with Connacht.
“I remember going there when Michael Cheika was coach, I think we lost and there was a couple of red cards so there was a lot of needle back then as well.
“I think someone got sent off for a headbutt in one, another sent off for an elbow so if that’s not needle I don’t know what is.”
When Fitzgerald’s comments – ‘they hate us down there and there is a real hatred building in Leinster for them’ — were put to Sexton, he added: “Welcome to the club, you’d probably get that off a lot of people. It happens when you are perceived in a certain way.
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“When you are from Dublin, and when you are perceived to be from Dublin, we’re not all from Dublin, you have this perception, maybe that’s where they get their kicks from.
“It doesn’t concern us much. Sometimes if you are successful a lot of teams don’t like you either. I’m sure a lot of teams don’t like us.”
Sexton speaking at the Champions Cup launch this week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
With extra terracing installed at the Sportsground, and all 8,000 tickets snapped up in advance, there is sure to be a raucous atmosphere in Galway tomorrow afternoon as Andy Friend’s side look to continue their encouraging start to the campaign.