McFadden hails strength in depth for battle on two fronts
Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30
Leo Cullen must wonder what he did to deserve all of this. Pitched into the head coach role early and drawn in the toughest pool in the Champions Cup, the Leinster supremo is facing into the kind of fixture list that would test even the most experienced veteran.
By the time his side face the Dragons on January 29 and bid farewell to their internationals again, the new coach will know where he stands and what coaching is really all about.
Before then, his team face Wasps on Sunday and Bath six days later. In December, they face the four-in-a-row chasing Toulon back-to-back and if they're still above water in January then they'll take on the English teams once again in their bid to reach the quarter-finals.
They could normally rely on the good old Guinness Pro12 for a bit of a rest, but not this time. The period takes in meetings with all four of the teams who reached the play-offs last season including trips to Glasgow, Swansea and Limerick and a visit from their old friends Connacht, who are currently top of the league.
It will be a delicate balance for Cullen who can't ditch the league in search of European glory over the course of the most difficult 11 games imaginable.
He was alongside Matt O'Connor last year when the Australian guided the three-time champions to the semi-finals in Europe, but was sacked for finishing fifth in the league - the placing that directly led to their tough draw in the Champions Cup.
It's just as well the former Ireland second-row has a strong hand to choose from. Leinster supplied 20 players to the World Cup and Cullen will need to use all of his resources to manage his men through the period.
Fergus McFadden (right) reckons they're ready for the step up in intensity having integrated their Irish players back into the squad since the defeat to Argentina.
"We had a good block of six weeks when the lads were at the World Cup," he said. "That was a good building block for some of the younger guys and guys that needed game time. Also, the guys who were over at the World Cup, there's a big block of the Leinster guys who would have had a lot of rugby over there. We're in a good place.
"The last two weeks we've been feeding some info into the guys who have come back into the set-up. It's an exciting time, we've got a great squad and there's more depth this year than there has been."
That depth looks set to create some headaches for Cullen as he looks to select the teams to beat what's in front of them, while also ensuring that they can remain fresh over the next 11 weeks.
Wasps present some specific challenges given the quality of their back-row and back-three, while Bath caused the Blues no end of problems in defence when they met in the last eight last season.
With Rob Kearney out of this weekend's game and Luke Fitzgerald racing to be fit, the back three will come from Isa Nacewa, Dave Kearney, McFadden and Zane Kirchner, while Cullen must decide who partners Ben Te'o in the centre with Fitzgerald competing with Noel Reid and Ian Madigan for the No12 berth.
Leinster's use of Johnny Sexton will be closely watched now that he's back under the IRFU umbrella. Injury restricted the out-half's on-pitch workload at the World Cup, meaning he should have a clear run at things - although he may be rotated to allow Madigan opportunities.
It will be interesting to see whether Luke McGrath has cracked the Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss stranglehold on the Nos 9 and 21 jerseys after his good start to the season.
Up front, Cullen has two Ireland front-rows - plus a spare Ireland loosehead and tighthead - to choose from in a situation that can't please David Nucifora, but makes the Blues a force to be reckoned with.
It is likely that Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin will rotate, while Mike Ross will hold on to the No3 jersey.
Leinster's weakest area is the second-row, where Kane Douglas has gone off to re-invent himself as a World Cup star and is replaced by the relatively unknown Hayden Triggs, who will compete with Mike McCarthy to partner Devin Toner. Injury means Mick Kearney is out for the foreseeable future, so Tom Denton and Ross Molony will have to step up when needed.
It could also mean the wealth of back-row options may have to be spread. Again, Cullen has Ireland internationals aplenty at the back of the scrum, with the No6 shirt looking the most competitive as Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip look nailed on for the openside and No8 positions.
That pits Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Dominic Ryan against each other for the blindside spot, but also affords Cullen the chance to rotate and keep his big guns fresh. They'll need all that fire-power to sustain their challenge on two fronts over the next 11 weeks.
Wasps, meanwhile, will be without Italy centre Lorenze Cittadini for Sunday's trip to the RDS after he received a one-week ban for punching Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees in last weekend's Premiership clash.