Thursday 5 December 2019

Cullen eyes bounce from dead rubber

Hooker James Tracy was beaming all week after realising he would be handed his first European start (SPORTSFILE)
Hooker James Tracy was beaming all week after realising he would be handed his first European start (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

This may be a dead rubber but Leo Cullen is expecting a bounce from one of the most inexperienced Leinster starting XVs ever to appear in European competition.

"It can be a great experience for them and they have worked really hard for this opportunity," says Cullen, whose side are enduring the worst losing sequence in their illustrious European history.

Opting to go with six players (two debutants) from the start for the first time in Europe - and three of them still members of the Academy - may seem like an exercise in futility after a blank campaign, but Cullen clearly has a broader vision.

"We are out of Europe but these guys have a big future here," Cullen asserts. "They are the future of this club and hopefully it can be a great day and people will come out to support us."


Four of the half-dozen occupy tight five positions, which will be a severe test of emerging credentials against the English side who arrive unchanged, boasting a big pack and aiming for all five points as they maintain another unlikely qualification spurt.

"A lot of those guys have worked closely together which is a big thing," says Cullen. "You know, we do have some more experienced guys on the bench as well.

"We have to manage the group, there were a few injuries: Cian Healy is out, Mike Ross is out. Regardless of that, we have full confidence that those guys can do a job for us."

Hooker James Tracy was, according to captain Isa Nacewa, beaming all week in training after realising he would be one of the lucky front-row handed their first European starts alongside Peter Dooley (who will make his European debut) and Tadhg Furlong, the latter now clearly eclipsing Wasps-bound Marty Moore.

Ross Molony is another Academy graduate who has been earning rave reviews within the camp, and this will also be his first taste of European action.

In the backline, Luke McGrath and Garry Ringrose, who have garnered plenty of experience this term, are rewarded with their first European starts.

Even though Bath's Anthony Watson admitted that he did not know a lot about Ringrose beyond Brian O'Driscoll's endorsement, Nacewa, who switches to the wing to accommodate Zane Kirchner at full-back, is effusive in his praise about a player some have suggested could feature for Ireland against Wales in three weeks' time.

"I am really excited about Garry. For someone his age, he's so very proactive in a lot of things on and off the pitch. He would do everything off the pitch, homework-wise.

"He often sees the bigger picture out on the field about what needs to happen. I really enjoyed playing with him because he sees the bigger picture in a backs move or a backs strike.

"He has had some great opportunities his year. Every chance he's had, he's taken it. He's being managed superbly too to put on the size when he's needed to.

"It's exciting to play with him. If he goes on to higher honours, he deserves it too.

"It is another big start for him this week in Europe against quality opposition. I am really happy to see him go well."

Leinster's primary focus is on the Pro12 as they aim to avoid the ignominy of this year's qualification campaign; the better their league position, the more likely it is they will have an easier pool in Europe.

Hence, their strongest team played away to Ospreys last weekend; today offers a glimpse of a brighter future to puncture all the doom.

Bath, in contrast, are unchanged as they aim for yet another great escape after making history last year by becoming the first club to reach the last eight despite losing their opening two Pool games.

"We're still alive," says out-half George Ford, son of coach Mike, whose alchemy has predominantly deserted him and his team this season as they languish in the bottom half of the English Premiership.

"We've got to prepare to be mentally on the edge and be ready to perform. If we do that, more often than not we'll come out on top. We're not that far away, and pushing Toulon so close (in France last week) has given us confidence."

Verdict: Bath

Leinster - Z Kirchner; I Nacewa (c), G Ringrose, B Te'o, D Kearney; I Madigan, L McGrath; P Dooley, J Tracy, T Furlong; R Molony, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Murphy.

Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, T Denton, S O'Brien, E Reddan, J Sexton, N Reid.

Bath - A Watson; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford, C Cook; M Lahiff, R Webber, D Wilson, S Hooper (c), D Day, M Garvey, F Louw, L Houston. Reps: R Batty, N Auterac, H Thomas, C Ewels, D Denton, J Evans, R Priestland, T Homer.

Ref - P Gauzere (France).

Leinster v Bath, Live, Sky Sports, 5.30pm

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