New Zealand

Leinster have the strength in depth to cope with Johnny Sexton loss

Jono Gibbes, La Rochelle’s Director of Rugby, believes Leinster have more than enough in the way of strength in depth to make up for the loss of Jonathan Sexton when the sides meet in Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final.

Sexton has been ruled out as a result of the head injury suffered after just 28 minutes of their last eight win away to Exeter Chiefs almost three weeks ago with the province stating yesterday that he is still going through graduated return-to-play protocols in training.

Ross Byrne, who was so effective as his replacement in Sandy Park earlier this month, and on many occasions prior to that, will again step into the No 10 role for the tie against a La Rochelle side helmed by Gibbes and head coach Ronan O’Gara.

“Obviously, it’s an enormous amount of experience missing out of the 23 with Johnny, who is a pretty important symbol. But really, over the last few years, Leinster have shown it doesn’t matter who plays.

The expectation is to fit in and do their role and the machine keeps rolling.

“That’s a big blow for Johnny individually, a massive amount of experience lost, but the message from Ronan to the players is just to understand it’s not about one player for Leinster. It’s their total collective that makes the difference.”

Leinster forwards coach Robin McBryde spoke glowingly yesterday of Byrne and even made the observation that he brings a greater tempo to his game than the former world player of the year but Gibbes isn’t buying talk of a tweaked approach with the younger man on call.

“No. Ronan and myself understand the Irish system, game time and how they manage players, how Leinster use the PRO14. There are guys that get exposed to high-level rugby consistently.

“We don’t see a massive deviation from Leinster’s plan. It’s served them really well for a long time under this coaching staff and I think, for us, we just get on with what we do and not worry too much about exactly who is wearing their 10 jersey.”

La Rochelle have had their own concerns ahead of the game with the half-back pairing of Ihaia West and Tawera Kerr Barlow carrying injuries but Gibbes painted a positive picture when asked about the Kiwi pairing today.

“They’re both coming along well,” said Gibbes whose first coaching role involved six hugely successful years at Leinster where he was in charge of the pack.

“We really benefitted from not having a match on the weekend, so we weren’t over-exposed in a game again.

“Those two individuals you asked about have progressed well. We’re on the field today and our main session later is Friday so that’s the real test.”

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