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Byrne To Reach 100 Leinster Caps Against La Rochelle

Byrne To Reach 100 Leinster Caps Against La Rochelle

Ross Byrne is pictured in action during Leinster's most recent trip to France, when they defeated Montpellier 35-14 last December ©INPHO/Dave Winter

Ross Byrne, who makes his 100th provincial appearance, and stand-in captain Luke McGrath will lead Leinster into battle in Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle.

The pair will have pivotal roles for the 4pm local time/3pm Irish time kick-off at Stade Marcel Deflandre. With Jonathan Sexton sidelined through injury, it will be Byrne’s third start in third European games this season.

There are three changes to the team that won 34-22 to dethrone Exeter Chiefs three weeks ago, as Byrne and fit-again duo Garry Ringrose and James Ryan all get the nod.

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Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, who scored three tries between them in Devon, are retained in the back-three, while Ringrose rejoins Robbie Henshaw in midfield.

Byrne and McGrath steer the ship from half-back, with the former having an impressive European campaign to date as the tournament’s fifth-top points scorer (37 points).

Ryan proved his fitness with a robust display in last week’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup opener against Munster. He teams up with Devin Toner in the second row.

Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong pack down together in the front row, and after sitting out last week’s game, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan come back in as the starting loose forwards.

Openside van der Flier’s stellar quarter-final performance, which included 22 tackles and two turnovers, has seen him added to the longlist for the EPCR European Player of the Year award.

On the bench, both Rowan Osborne (hand) and Ciaran Frawley (hamstring) have recovered from injury to take their place in the matchday 23, while Andrew Porter is in line to win his 75th Leinster cap.

Speaking ahead of the game, head coach Leo Cullen said: “La Rochelle are a well-coached team by two coaches (Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes) we have a lot of respect for. You can see the progression their team has made over the last couple of seasons.

“They have a good mix of big, powerful forwards, a dynamic back row, that Kiwi combination at 9 and 10 with (Tawera) Kerr-Barlow and (Ihaia) West, and some dangerous players out wide in Raymond Rhule and (Brice) Dulin.”

He added: “In terms of Ross, it’s a massive step up. You’re starting a semi-final in Europe but he has played big games for us before.

“You think back to the quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva (in 2019) when he steered us around the field well and he’s done that in the Guinness PRO14 as well. He has led the group well this week.

“Ross has probably played more minutes for us over the last few seasons than Johnny has because Johnny has had more international minutes. In many ways, the players are more in sync with Ross because he has played more games.

“Ross has been a bit more on the periphery with Ireland and he is more ingrained in what we do in Leinster. It’s all subtle differences, neither is right or wrong. Ross has a very, very clear picture in terms of what we’re trying to do here.”

LEINSTER (v La Rochelle): Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Ryan Baird, Rowan Osborne, Ciaran Frawley, Rory O’Loughlin.