Leinster open up 2017 at the RDS against a Zebre side that are looking to move off the bottom of the Guinness PRO12 table on Friday night (19:35 GMT).
What’s at stake?
The Leinstermen are five points off the pace of leaders Munster after suffering a Boxing Day loss at Thomond Park, but got back on the horse against Ulster last time out and will be hoping to take five points under the Friday Night Lights.
Following a dispiriting loss against Italian rivals Treviso over Christmas, Zebre came ever so close to recording a second Guinness PRO12 victory of the season against Edinburgh and will be hopeful of proving a thorn in Leinster’s side.
Team news (Leinster)
In the backs, three internationals return for Leinster with Zane Kirchner taking up his place at full back, Robbie Henshaw comes in at No.13, but the headline change is the return of Jonathan Sexton at fly-half.
In the pack, Cian Healy and James Tracy start alongside Michael Bent who will win his 75th cap for the province.
And the two final changes see Dan Leavy start at blindside flanker, with Jack Conan coming in at No.8.
Team news (Zebre)
Zebre have made seven changes in total to the team that were defeated narrowly by Edinburgh, as a fresh pair of wingers – Lloyd Greeff and Mattia Bellini – slot in.
There is also an all-new centre partnership in Matteo Pratichetti and Tommaso Castello, while among the forwards, Federico Ruzza, and Gideon Koegelenberg and Pietro Ceccarelli start at flanker, second-row and prop respectively.
All eyes will be on Ireland fly-half Sexton’s return this weekend, as he makes his first appearance since the autumn internationals two months ago.
“It’s no different to any other player that is out injured. It’s frustrating because players enjoy when they are playing the game,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
“That’s why, I’m sure, they started playing the game in the first place. We’ve several other players out injured but he’s back now, another opportunity for him to get back playing and put his case for selection for what’s ahead.”
Key battle: Zebre will hope to apply some considerable grunt up front in the scrum and the battle between Ireland loosehead Cian Healy and Italy’s rising star, Pietro Ceccarelli, may tip the scales either way.
Key stat: Leinster have played nine, won nine against Zebre and have won all 13 previous games against Italian opposition at the RDS Arena.
Lions contenders: Leinster have a wealth of Ireland internationals looking to build steam heading into 2017. The likes of Jonathan Sexton and Sean O’Brien have already toured with the Lions, but centre duo Garry Ringrose and particularly Robbie Henshaw will expect to throw their names into the hat provided they finish the season strongly.
Did you know?
Leinster have lost just once at the RDS Arena in the Guinness PRO12 since March 2013 – 14-16 to Newport Gwent Dragons in February 2015.
Top points scorer: 78 – Isa Nacewa
Top try scorer: 5 – Adam Byrne
Top points scorer: 66 – Carlo Canna
Top try scorer: 4 – Dries van Schalkwyk, Giamba Venditti
At RDS Arena, 7.35pm Live on TG4
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU, 2nd competition game)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (WRU), Jonny Erskine (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)
TMO: Neil Hennessey (WRU)
Johnny Sexton marked his long-awaited return to Guinness PRO12 action with a perfect record from the tee as Leinster sailed past Zebre under Friday Night Lights.
With seven different try scorers, including three for Rory O’Loughlin, Leo Cullen’s men sealed the bonus point with just half an hour played, with Sexton – pulling on the Leinster jersey for the first time since the autumn internationals two months ago – contributing 12 points to their tally.
Two first-half penalties from Edoardo Padovani had given the Italians hope in the early stages, but the Irish province proved too strong as they maintained their top three position.
Leinster were the first to get on the scoresheet when Sean O’Brien dotted down after fine work from the centres saw the ball spread wide, Sexton successfully kicking the conversion from the tee.
Zebre pulled a penalty back on 16 minutes through Padovani, but the hosts immediately responded as Hayden Triggs crossed the whitewash before Sexton added the extras.
Padovani added another three points to Zebre’s tally to narrow the advantage to eight, but Luke McGrath was quick to restore the hosts’ lead with a try, running under the posts following slick play with Zane Kirchner.
Cian Healy’s big carry made it 28-6 on the 30-minute mark to secure the bonus point, with Sexton converting both to make it four from four.
And on the stroke of half-time, McGrath broke free from the scrum before putting O’Loughlin through for a converted try to ensure Leinster went into the break 29 points ahead.
The hosts had the first opportunity for points of the second period, when Dan Leavy looked set to cross in the corner after a stunning James Tracy pass, only to be tackled into touch.
But they didn’t have long to wait for that first try of the second 40, Garry Ringrose ploughing over the line for his side’s sixth try of the evening, Sexton continuing his perfect record from the tee.
O’Loughlin got his second of the game on the 70-minute mark when he crossed from close range, before securing his hat-trick just minutes later after latching on to a sublime Ringrose off-load to score once more, Ross Byrne successfully converting both.
The Italians finished the game with 14 men when Guillermo Roan was shown a yellow card, and their fate was sealed when Ringrose added his second try – and his side’s ninth – of the game with the clock ticking down, crossing over following a scrum five metres from the line, Byrne once again adding the two points.
And Jamie Heaslip wrapped up his side’s stunning performance with a last-gasp try, converted by Byrne, to seal a 70-6 victory for Leinster for their second win on the bounce.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final