Under normal circumstances, Leinster’s trip to Italy to face a winless Zebre side wouldn’t make for must-see entertainment but RTÉ’s viewing figures are bound to jump beyond the norm tomorrow afternoon as Jonathan Sexton plays rugby for the first time since Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to England.
Expect some rust after his lengthy injury-enforced layoff but anything other than a complete shocker will leave Joe Schmidt with a doozy of a dilemma at out-half as the season winds its way to a close and he finds himself juggling the respective merits of Sexton and Ian Madigan.
With an Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Biarritz and a RaboDirect play-off to come, the Leinster coach must decide whether he should go with the Paris-bound Sexton or show his faith in Madigan who has been nothing short of a revelation at 10 in the older man’s absence.
Sexton clearly needs a run of games if he is to travel on the British and Irish Lions touring party at anything approaching optimal level but this first outing represents something of a tricky assignment given the timing and location of the game and the fact that Schmidt has rested a platoon of his best men.
Zebre have moved the fixture to the Stadio Citta del Tricolore in Reggio Emilia to raise funds for victims of the earthquake that hit the region last year and will be emotionally driven to mark the event with the win that has eluded them in their debut season to date.
“People say they haven’t won a game this season but they have lost eight of them by seven points [or less] and five of those by three [or less] so they’re by no means getting hammered every week,” said flanker Dominic Ryan who is one of the younger men drafted in for the tie. “We’ll have to be on our game.”
Ryan slides into a back row that has been vacated by Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Shane Jennings who, like Leo Cullen and most of the international contingent, have been given a weekend’s leave in order to ensure freshness and fitness entering into the season’s final bend.
All told, Leinster have flown out to Italy with 1,266 caps worth of experience voluntarily left behind. Add in injuries to others including Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan and that tally shoots up to 1,589 which will place a heavy onus on men like Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa.
LEINSTER: I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, A Goodman, F Carr; J Sexton, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Bent; T Denton, D Toner; K McLaughlin, D Ryan, R Ruddock.
ZEBRE: R Trevisan; L Sarto, G Venditti, M Pratichetti, S Sinoti; D Halangahu, A Chillon; M Aguero, A Manici, L Leibson; M van Vuren, M Bortolami; F Ferrarini, M Bergamasco, J Sole.
Referee: N Paterson (SRU).