Monday 19 March 2018

Wicklow duo Cullen and Conan look forward to big season

Leinster visit to Arklow RFC

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Jack Conan at the Leinster rugby training and meet and greet in Arklow Rugby Club

Arklow RFC hosted the Leinster Senior Rugby squad on Tuesday morning and afternoon as the boys in blue took their pre-season training onto the firsts pitch on a gloriously sunny morning in Arklow.

A huge crowd turned up to watch the session, particularly young people, and after the session was finished the players spent time going around to get in as many selfies and sign as many autographs as they could.

Although Leinster's five Lions stars have not yet returned to training themselves the Tullow Tank Seán O'Brien was there meeting and greeting as many of the supporters as he could.

Also in attendance but not taking part in training due to a minor groin strain was Leinster's Wicklow star Jack Conan and the Wicklow People caught up with him as well as his head coach and fellow Wicklow man Leo Cullen to talk all things Leinster.

Conan was capped three times for Ireland during June's tour of USA and Japan and the Bray man says it's an experience which he savoured.

"It was great to get capped again and then to go out there and play so well and get three big wins was brilliant for the team. It had been two years since I was capped previously so to pull back on the green jersey again was amazing.

"It was a relatively inexperienced team for the three tests so it was a good chance for guys to put their hand up and impress Joe and I think a lot of lads did that."

Conan is currently sidelined with a minor groin strain so had to sit out the session in Arklow but says he is excited for the season ahead.

"For me personally I want to carry the form I had last year and through the summer tests into this season and improve on it again. The back row is very competitive which is great because you're never resting on your laurels and have to play well consistently to keep your spot.

"Obviously I want to play in as many big games as possible and earn myself another chance to pull on the Irish jersey but it's all down to how I perform.

"As a team we were obviously massively disappointed to lose the two semi-finals last year. On the flip side of that though I think the general feeling is also that, despite how it ended, we improved massively from the season before and there is a number of younger guys coming through and establishing themselves or fighting for places. Competition across the board is fierce and I think we played an exciting brand of rugby so it's all about taking that up another notch and hopefully winning trophies next season which is the aim."

Coach Cullen shared the opinion of his back rower and feels that if Leinster can pull things together a great season is very possible. All eyes currently though are on pre-season and getting the players primed for the season ahead.

"Absolutely I think we have a team capable of winning trophies and that will be the aim.

"It all starts on days like this and currently there is a lot of players at different stages of their pre-season which makes it a little disjointed but is something we just have to manage.

"Everyone gets 4 to 5 weeks off but obviously the 5 guys who went with the Lions were finished up at a different time so they're currently off at the moment while the lads involved on the Irish tour have only started back recently. When it all comes together we feel we have a very good squad capable of improving on last season but we'll have to do our talking on the pitch."

The squad for next season will also have two overseas additions as Australian international Scott Fardy and New Zealander James Lowe signed for Leinster over the summer. Cullen is excited about the new arrivals and hope's they will add to the team.

"Scott's just moved over and is currently settling in while James won't be available until October due to commitments with Tasman in the ITM Cup. They are two players we feel can add a lot. Scott is a tough, no nonsense player and has been capped almost forty times for Australia and played in the World Cup Final. His experience as well as his playing ability could be invaluable while James is a really exciting prospect and has been an electrifying winger for the Chiefs over the last couple of years."

Finally it was announced on Tuesday morning that the current Pro 12 competition will be expanded to a 14 team tournament with the addition of 2 South African teams; the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings.

The format of the league will also change with teams being split into 2 seven team groups, although every team in the league will play each other at least once. Cullen feels that overall it is an exciting change and one he is looking forward to.

"Yeah I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Often new formats like this are met with initial scepticism and uncertainty but I think it will be a great chance for our players and coaches to test themselves against quality opposition with different playing styles and in a different environment.

"It's also a new market and a chance to grow revenue and grow the game so I think overall it's definitely a positive venture. Regardless of the competition format I was bitterly disappointed how the season ended last year so we can't wait to get back playing and hopefully have a successful year ahead."

Bray People