Johnny Sexton will return to captain Leinster for their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final with Saracens on Saturday, the Ireland skipper one of four changes to the starting XV which defeated Ulster in last weekend’s Guinness PRO14 final.
Head coach Leo Cullen has restored scrum-half Luke McGrath and fly-half Sexton to the nine and 10 jerseys at the expense of Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne, the half-backs who steered Leinster to a third straight PRO14 title in a 27-5 defeat of Ulster at Aviva Stadium last Saturday.
Sean Cronin starts at hooker for the first time since the August 29 game against Ulster as Leinster look to an improved lineout performance from the one which lost four first-half throws from Ronan Kelleher, who drops to the bench.
The other change comes at openside flanker where Josh van der Flier’s man of the match performance in last week’s final victory has not helped him prevent Will Connors from regaining the number seven jersey as Cullen looks to deploy the 24-year-old’s chop-tackling expertise to halt Saracens’ rampaging No.8 Billy Vunipola in open play.
Connors is one of two European debutants in the starting XV with Hugo Keenan retained on the right wing in an unchanged back three that will see Jordan Larmour at full-back for his 50th Leinster appearance with James Lowe on the left wing.
There is a third potential Champions Cup debut with lock Ryan Baird named among the six forwards on the eight-man replacement bench.
Cronin’s recall will see the Limerick-born hooker win his 185th Leinster cap while loosehead prop Cian Healy will become the fourth most-capped Leinster player when he runs out for his 220th appearance. On the other side of Cronin, Andrew Porter remains at tighthead with Michael Bent as cover as Tadhg Furlong is omitted for another matchday squad following his August back injury.
Saracens boss Mark McCall has picked a formidable starting line-up despite the suspension of Owen Farrell and the player exodus that followed their enforced relegation from the English Premiership for breaches of salary-cap regulations. Soon to retire captain Brad Barritt is one of six British & Irish Lions in the XV that also includes Springbok World Cup winner Vincent Koch at tighthead.
Ulster, however, will be missing their influential South African for Sunday’s quarter-final at Toulouse with Marcell Coetzee absent from Dan McFarland’s matchday squad, Nick Timoney instead starting at No.8.
Timoney’s promotion is one of four changes from the side beaten by Leinster last Saturday with John Cooney replacing Alby Mathewson at scrum-half in an otherwise unchanged backline, Jack McGrath in at loosehead at the expense of Eric O’Sullivan, fellow former Leinster man Jordi Murphy moving off the bench to the back row at openside as Sean Reidy switches to the blindside.
Ulster’s bench, with six forwards and two backs, does not feature fly-half Ian Madigan with Matt Faddes providing back cover alongside Mathewson.
J Larmour; H Keenan, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, A Porter; D Toner, J Ryan; C Doris, W Connors, J Conan.
R Kelleher, E Byrne, M Bent, R Baird, J van der Flier, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R O’Loughlin
E Daly; A Lewington, D Taylor, B Barritt - captain, S Maitland; A Goode, R Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, J George, V Koch; M Itoje, T Swinson; M Rhodes, J Wray, B Vunipola.
T Woolstencroft, R Barrington, A Clarey, C Hunter-Hill, C Clark, A Davies, Manu Vunipola, D Morris
Pascal Gauzere (France)
T Ramos; Y Huget, S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kolbe; R Ntamack, A Dupont; C Baille, P Mauvaka, C Faumuina; R Arnold, J Tekori; J Kaino - captain, F Cros, S Tolofua.
J Marchand, R Neti, D Aldegheri, E Meafou, A Placines, Z Holmes, A Bales, M Lebel.
M Lowry; R Lyttle, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson - captain; S Reidy, J Murphy, N Timoney.
J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, M Moore, S Carter, K Treadwell, A Mathewson, M Faddes, M Rea.
Wayne Barnes (England)