Sunday 4 December 2016

Victor Costello: Leo Cullen must stick with young guns even when big names return from Six Nations

Victor Costello

Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30

Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

Zebre at home this evening will not cause great concern for most Leinster fans - but the season could balance on the next two games.

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Playing against the Italians at home will be a great confidence booster and will hardly raise the heartbeats of the loyal supporters, but next week's game against Cardiff is the one that will either keep Leinster in the doubtful zone, or put them as real contenders for the league title.

Rarely in the past have Leinster found themselves looking at the Pro12 for qualification into Europe, as normally it's a matter of winning it or losing in the play-offs. This season should prove no different.

Up to now performances in the Pro12 have served as self-motivated proof of the ability to perform at the top table of European rugby. Failing to do this has let the season slip and the priority now is to slip no further.

Expectation across the board in Irish rugby was at a low ebb until the performance of the Ireland team last the weekend. An Irish squad without some of its better-known players drawing, with a moral victory, should show Leinster and other provincial teams that public opinion can sway in your favour very easily.

The brickbats from the media and fans should not resonate too deeply in the Leinster management's psyche with so much left to gain in the season.

Ireland's early exit in the World Cup sent tormented, regretful players back to the provinces and these players struggled with their clubs.

Yet even after one game, the reverse could happen for Leinster after the Six Nations, with players returning rejuvenated and rehabilitated.

That being said, there should be less onus on the Leinster management to select the Ireland players immediately on return form international duty and more focus on the players currently with the province.

It is normal for a coach to know his preferred XV when the squad is fit and healthy but come the end of the season, strength and depth in a squad will have more importance than ever.

Fatigue will have set in and most other top teams in the Pro12 will have the same international fallout as Leinster.

Preparing the youth and current squad players at this time for victory in this league will benefit Leinster at the end of this competition.

Over-reliance on the Ireland players will leave Leinster with too much uncertainty in personnel and performance.

The second international series should prove no consequence for Leinster. The main focus will be to bag maximum points.

Leinster in parts this season showed moments that reminded themselves of their winning ways.

They have spoken as a squad about the belief within, but is very rare to get the chance to avoid playing restrictive, protective rugby and this Friday is one of those times.

We need to see Leinster dominate in areas of the game they have been inconsistent this season.

This is an ideal opportunity for the younger guys to show leadership and hunger and more so an ability to prove their ambition for the next few years.

Loyalty

This loyalty shouldn't be forgotten and should be repaid with selection at the close of the season.

For the next few weeks, stability in selection will give a stability in performance and consistency will be important to tackle the play-offs.

Zebre will not cause Leinster any difficulty and the sight of a half-full RDS will remind the players of bigger games elsewhere during this time.

While the standard noise of Pro12 games echoes in empty terraces, the players will need to keep Leinster's standard high to regain the confidence in the faithful supporters that the squad maintain they already have.

Irish Independent

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