Saturday 24 February 2018

Brave Cullen gives youth its fling as Leinster seek European knock-out blow


Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leinster coach Leo Cullen has given youth its fling as he seeks to kick-start a potential Irish Champions Cup double which would keep alive the prospect of a dream Edinburgh final against arch-rivals Munster.

Cullen's men face off against Premiership pace-setters Wasps at a near sell-out Aviva Stadium this afternoon (3.15) before Munster welcome four-time winners Toulouse to a sold-out Thomond Park just over two hours later.

Despite missing injured multiple European champions Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, Cullen has not hesitated in opting for the relatively inexperienced pair Joey Carbery and Adam Byrne, whose inclusion comes ahead of two benched international players, Zane Kirchner and Fergus McFadden.

And Dan Leavy has also managed to snaffle a starting berth instead of his more established, fit-again Irish international colleague Josh van der Flier.

"We still have tons of experience there," said Cullen, "but it's the chance for guys to step in.

"We've been building throughout the year. Joey and Adam Byrne have come a huge way since pre-season. They look to get better every week, that's what we've been driving.

"It's a big occasion, but these guys have stepped up in Europe already. Joey has been exposed to international rugby over the last eight months. It's about enjoying the moment and focusing on what we can control.

"Those guys have been looking forward to the occasion and it's going to be a good one."

Isa Nacewa is one of the experienced players referenced by Cullen and, after two humiliating defeats to Wasps bombed Leinster out of the pool stages last season, the captain is determined to make amends.

"You envy the guys that are out there playing," he said of his side's absence from this stage last season. "I couldn't bring myself to watch the games because you just want to be involved in them."

Meanwhile, CJ Stander has admitted he is fully aware of the discussion surrounding his Irishness, but the Munster No 8 says his focus is on delivering on the pitch and securing his first piece of silverware for his province.

The South African back-row qualified for Ireland on residency in 2015 and has won 15 caps for his adopted country but has become a lightning rod for criticism of World Rugby's three-year residency law in recent months.

Speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent, Stander said he understands the concerns of those on the other side of the debate, but has resolved to show his worth on the rugby pitch.

"In the beginning, I wondered 'why are they using me as a poster-boy?' but I am now at that level that I am playing and people want to use me," he said.

"Luckily, stuff like that doesn't bother me. People have opinions, they'll always have opinions and I'm not going to change that. We're just playing by the rules as long as I'm performing."

Stander is a favourite to be selected in Warren Gatland's Lions squad when the touring party is revealed in two weeks' time.

"It's not something you can think of in a week like this," he said ahead of a clash where fit-again scrum-half Conor Murray will start.

"There are a lot of players here like me who haven't won anything with Munster."

Irish Independent

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