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)