Tuesday 17 September 2019

Back-row bonanza leaves Cullen with difficult choice

Last weekend, Cullen started Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile
Last weekend, Cullen started Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile

Tom Rooney

As Leinster clamour to cope with their current climate of crocked out-halves ahead of Saturday's Champions Cup clash with Northampton, they can take solace in the fact that even the worst injury crisis imaginable is unlikely to deprive them of back-row options.

With Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Cathal Marsh all battling injury, 21-year-old Ross Byrne, who replaced Carbery during the decisive win at Franklin's Gardens, will in all likelihood wear the No 10 jersey for an encounter at the Aviva Stadium that could have a significant bearing on Leinster's European ambitions.

However, when Leo Cullen surveys the resources available to him in the loose forward department, the biggest problem he faces is how to shortlist the candidates for selection.

The province presently boasts eight back-row players who have been capped by Ireland which, even in age of rotation and incessant injury, is a staggering number. Last weekend, Cullen started Josh van der Flier, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, with Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock taking their place on the bench.

It meant that Dominic Ryan and Dan Leavy had to make do with spectator status, as did the recuperating Jordi Murphy. Meanwhile, players like Peadar Timmins and Max Deegan have been tearing up trees for Leinster 'A'. It's an embarrassment of riches but also a necessity, according to Cullen.

"If we want to push guys through and make sure that they go on and play for Ireland, you need to realise that you're going to potentially miss three or four of them on any given week, so that places a strain straight away. I think we have just about the right amount," the former Ireland lock said.

Of the men in question, only the evergreen Heaslip - who turns 33 tomorrow - has celebrated his 30th birthday. O'Brien is 29, but the remaining six are all 26 or under.

International windows and player welfare protocols will always provide chances to impress, but there are few players who will be content to spend their best years wondering from week to week if they're going to feature in big games.

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Dan Leavy, 22, recently found out just how frustrating a situation it can prove. Until the Northampton fixture, he had played in all 12 of Leinster's games this season, and was rewarded for his displays by coming off the bench - for O'Brien, funnily enough - against Canada to win his first cap for Ireland.

He admitted that his omission wasn't easy to take, but there was little choice but to get on with it.

"I was a little bit disappointed, as you're going to be. It was the first game of the year that I haven't played, but it's the decision Leo went with and I have to respect that.

"You just have to bounce back: take it as an opportunity to work on strength and conditioning, your skill and take a week off and come back," he explained.

"We'll all be slotting in and out during the week until the team is finalised, so I suppose you do have to stomach it and take you're opportunity when you get it.

"There's rotation but, as I said, I played the first 12 games of the season and got an Ireland cap in there, so it's ok."

Leavy was quick to point out that being deprived of the chance to line out for every game also has huge benefits - as could be seen as the Leinster pack dominated a jaded-looking Northampton eight, some of whom had just returned from international duty.

"A few of those Northampton players had played Australia on Saturday and they're coming back to play another game that's the equivalent standard of a Test match six days later. That's going be massively physically and emotionally draining.

"We had a lot our lads rested the week before from the Dragons game and were able to put out a lot of fresh faces from the Australia week, which stood to us. Maybe in the last 20 minutes we kind of pulled away, maybe that was one of the factors."

Backlash

After a string of outstanding performances during the Six Nations and autumn internationals, Van der Flier has made a case for Ireland's find of 2016 but, for now, he's fixated on what he believes will be a bruising backlash from Northampton on Saturday night.

"They're going come at us really hard, and having seen us play obviously, the way we attack, the way our game-plan was set up, that kind of thing, they'll be really ready for us this time.

"We lost to Toulon last year and were desperate to put it right then in the Aviva, and that's the way Northampton will be thinking."

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