Jonathan Sexton’s mood was one of the talking points in a disappointing Six Nations campaign for Ireland and it’s unlikely that his humour has improved given his absence from today’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Ulster.
The out-half has been omitted due to what Leinster head coach Leo Cullen described yesterday as some tightness to a calf muscle. A little niggle. “It’s prudent to rest him because we have some big games to come,” he explained.
Is this a slight dig at Ulster? What could be bigger than a European Cup quarter-final at home to a local rival at the national stadium?
As explained elsewhere in these pages, Sexton’s replacement is no slouch and Ulster head coach Dan McFarland wasn’t keen on portraying the home side’s forced change at ten as any sort of boost to his own lot’s chances.
“Leinster are a team that have won four Champions Cups, they’re the double winners from last year and I can tell you they didn’t get there by relying on one of two players. That’s the bottom line, this is a quality side whoever they’re slotting in.
“In terms of a psychological advantage, I don’t really think so. We have to be totally focused on what we’re doing. If we’re reliant on feeling good because they don’t have something, that’s totally the wrong attitude. We want to go out there and put our best game out there.”
If Sexton’s absence hogs the headlines, the choice of Jordan Larmour at 15 rather than Rob Kearney — who is named on the bench — isn’t far behind in terms of significance.
Big calls for a big game, particularly the choice at full-back. Sean O’Brien has been confirmed at seven over the fit again Dan Leavy and the electric wing James Lowe again falls foul of the restrictions on Kiwis and Aussies by making do with a seat in the stand.
McFarland’s selection was less painful. Iain Henderson features having been a doubt all week with a knee injury suffered in the Six Nations, Marty Moore is over a concussion and Darren Cave returns to the centre where options were low.
So the odds are back a tad in Ulster’s favour, though unlikely enough to see a repeat of the only other European quarter-final meeting between two provinces when they shocked Munster at Thomond Park in 2012.