Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cullen can keep Leinster on home course

Leo Cullen is willing to play
through the pain barrier for
Leinster and Ireland.
Leo Cullen is willing to play through the pain barrier for Leinster and Ireland.

Hugh Farrelly

LEO CULLEN'S desire to play on for club and country, despite on-going problems with his Achilles tendons, deserves to be acknowledged and commended.

On Thursday, the Leinster captain expressed his preference to "manage away" rather than go for keyhole surgery describing the problem as a "little issue." Anyone who has ever damaged their Achilles tendons would testify to what a painful injury it can be and being prepared to play through the discomfort speaks volumes about Cullen's commitment.

There was a strong argument for Dan Tuohy's good form being rewarded by inclusion in Ireland's Six Nations squad, but, in a year when victories are paramount to Ireland's World Cup seeding, Cullen was named for a reason.

If he is needed by Ireland coach Declan Kidney, Cullen brings a level of proven experience few others can match and, at 34, his desire to keep himself available, despite injury complications, is laudable.

The second-row put in a very effective shift in the win in Glasgow last weekend and leads Leinster out this afternoon against Montpellier at the RDS when the Heineken Cup champions will be seeking to secure a home quarter-final for the third year in succession.

That will be achieved by a win of any description, but, though they would not admit it publicly, Joe Schmidt's side would love to end the pool stages with a four-try bonus which would send them into the break reflecting on an excellent five months of cup and league action.

Schmidt has made a number of changes to the side that accounted for Glasgow. Eoin O'Malley comes into midfield with Fergus McFadden switching to the wing, while Isaac Boss comes in at scrum-half for Eoin Reddan.

Even without the injured Luke Fitzgerald it is a typically potent backline, marshalled by Jonathan Sexton at out-half. Richardt Strauss, Damian Browne and Rhys Ruddock come into the pack and there is a first Heineken Cup start for tight-head prop Jamie Hagan.

It is no harm that Mike Ross starts on the bench to give his neck and shoulders a break with the Six Nations just around the corner, particularly as many of Ross' opponents are opting to drop scrums in the hope of winning a penalty rather than take on Ireland's scrummaging leader.

At the end of last season, Hagan had justifiable claims on a place in Ireland's World Cup squad after a run of consistent performances for Connacht, in tight and loose. Today represents the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that he can still be a force in a problem position for Irish rugby.

After a stupendous campaign last season, Strauss has been overshadowed by Sean Cronin to a degree at hooker over the last few months, but gets his chance this afternoon and this is just the type of occasion to showcase the South African's ball-carrying ability.

Montpellier arrive with nothing more than an outside shot at the Challenge Cup knock-out stages to play for, but they have some heavyweights in their line-up who demand respect -- particularly in the back-row, where captain Fulgence Ouedraogo is joined by Georgian muscle-man Mamuka Gorgodze.

Former Ulster winger Timoci Nagusa gives them a cutting edge in the back three, alongside full-back Lucas Amorosino, while the quality of out-half Francois Trinh-Duc is well established.

Nonetheless, the home side, who carry five Ireland internationals, on their bench should be too powerful and though the early kick-off mitigates against atmosphere, the RDS should have plenty to acclaim as the game wears on.

"It's important that we continue our momentum in the tournament," says forwards coach Jono Gibbes.

"There was a lot of effort and toil in Firhill, but not so much accuracy. We have targeted our ball-carrying area which is geared towards Montpellier's strength on the ground and in the collisions.

"Qualification has been secured, but it's still important that we bring a good performance to a sold-out RDS, we really want to put a performance together for our supporters."

Leinster have picked a side designed to cope with the physical threat of the French with Boss, Browne and Ruddock all well-equipped in this regard and it is essential that the home side go through the softening-up process early on before exploring wider avenues of attack.

Last weekend, Leinster chose to run the ball ahead of playing the territory game in the first half and this allowed Glasgow to gain confidence from their dogged defence, making it harder for Leinster to put them away.

It is safe to expect those lessons have been learned and, once Leinster have established a solid platform, they have the capacity to pull away in the second half and round off their pool campaign in considerable style.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER -- R Kearney; F McFadden, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, J Hagan; L Cullen (capt), D Browne; R Ruddock, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, H Van der Merwe, M Ross, D Toner, S Jennings, E Reddan, I Madigan, F Carr.

MONTPELLIER -- L Amorosino; T Nagusa, Y Audrin, P Bosch, M Bustos Moyano; F Trinh-Duc, J Tomas; N Leleimalefaga, A Creevy, G Jgenti; D Hancke, M Demarco; F Ouedraogo (capt), M Gorgodze, A Tulou. Reps: R van Vuuren, J Figallo, M Bustos, J Tuineau, V Bost, B Paillaugue, S Fernandez, G Doumayrou.

REF -- N Paterson (Scotland).

Leinster v Montpellier,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Irish Independent

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