Thursday 22 February 2018

Leinster stretched to the limit

Battered Blues struggle to get walking wounded fit for opening Euro skirmish

Leo Cullen, pictured during squad training in UCD, is expected to recover from his arm injury in time for the Saturday's clash with Exeter
Leo Cullen, pictured during squad training in UCD, is expected to recover from his arm injury in time for the Saturday's clash with Exeter

WINTER is coming and there is a sense around Leinster that the standard-bearers are not quite ready to withstand its throes. It is not that the kings of the Heineken Cup castle have allowed the grass to grow under their feet, but that they have not yet fully recovered from the toll of battle last season. Three-in-a-rows do not come easily and the squad has taken a hit ahead of their title defence.

The Chiefs of Exeter are the first challenger to come calling to Leinster's fortress at the RDS, a new face on the block eager to prove their worth. The renowned Welsh warrior George North and his band of Scarlets are next up, fresh from tasting blood in the first league encounter of the season. It will test Joe Schmidt's squad, with 17 players at various levels of recovery, to the full.

But the New Zealander can be thankful to the scheduling gods for one thing. The double-header against Clermont remains two months away. Leinster will believe that they can repair the ramparts in time for those seismic December clashes, while fighting the fires that await them in the coming 12 days.

Still, the ever-prepared Schmidt would have hoped to have had more front-liners available to him this week. Even if the walking wounded make it back for Saturday's opener, they will not have had much time on the training paddock to prepare thoroughly for the European newcomers, who hammered Harlequins last weekend.

Winning your home games is the key to Heineken Cup success, and Leinster have not lost in Dublin since London Irish shocked the RDS on October 9, 2009. Eoin Reddan suggests that English sides are able to peak at this time of year because of the nature of the Premiership. With the champions' problems, they are vulnerable.

On a chilly afternoon at UCD, skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy presented the picture to the media as Rob Kearney and Andrew Conway trained on their own behind him and the players who had started against Munster headed for the new 50m pool on campus for some R&R.

"It is a long one," Murphy said before launching into a player-by-player list of ailments and their likely availability. He was positive, but with so many at risk of recurrences in the next week's training, there is plenty of trepidation around the champions.

So where do Leinster stand ahead of their three-in-a-row tilt?

Back three

Rob Kearney and Conway trained away from the bulk of the squad, with Murphy delivering a positive bulletin on both.

Ireland and Lions full-back Kearney remains a long shot, even though Murphy was positive on his availability.

Kearney is three weeks into what was initially deemed a six-week absence and, although he was running at angles yesterday, it still seems premature for a return. Conway looks like recovering from the stinger which saw him stretchered off in Saturday's win over Munster, while Isa Nacewa's dead leg should clear.

Dave Kearney is a longer-term absentee, but Ian Madigan's flexibility and display on Saturday means that he can cover full-back and out-half if necessary, while Fergus McFadden can move out to the wing if Gordon D'Arcy is fit.

Fully fit: Fionn Carr, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.

On the mend: Isa Nacewa, Andrew Conway, Rob Kearney.

Out: Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald.

Centre

The pillars of the Leinster centre are hopeful of making the grade for Saturday's clash, but D'Arcy has precious little game time under his belt as a result of the rib injury that has forced him off in both of his outings so far this season.

His partner in crime Brian O'Driscoll is confident of shaking off the ankle injury that forced him off after his superb try on Saturday, while Eoin O'Malley is out.

McFadden did well at 12 on Saturday, but below him, the cover of Noel Reid and Brendan Macken looks callow if things take a turn for the worse.

Fully fit: Fergus McFadden, Noel Reid, Brendan Macken.

On the mend: Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy.

Out: Eoin O'Malley.

Half-backs

A rare position of strength. Isaac Boss returns this week after his shoulder injury and Reddan came through his comeback from a quad injury with flying colours on Saturday. John Cooney has proved an able deputy.

Sexton and Madigan will cover out-half, with New Zealander Andrew Goodman yet to arrive.

Fully fit: Eoin Reddan, John Cooney, Jonathan Sexton, Ian Madigan.

On the mend: Isaac Boss.

Front-row

Another area where the resources are holding strong as Cian Healy returns to training after a bicep injury kept him out against Munster.

Mike Ross, Heinke van der Merwe and Jamie Hagan all came through Saturday unscathed, although Michael Bent won't join until the ITM Cup finishes in New Zealand.

Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin are fighting for the No 2 shirt after strong displays at Lansdowne Road.

Fully fit: Mike Ross, Heinke van der Merwe, Jamie Hagan, Jack McGrath Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin, Tom Sexton.

On the mend: Cian Healy.

Second-Row

Leo Cullen's arm injury would have given Schmidt and Jono Gibbes plenty to worry about as it is in the second-row that the European champions lack depth the most.

Where once they could call on Nathan Hines or Brad Thorn, it is now Devin Toner, Tom Denton, Damian Browne, Mark Flanagan and Quinn Roux who are battling it out to partner Cullen. Roux looks unlikely to make it back in time for Saturday after suffering a shoulder injury against Connacht and it appears to be Browne and Toner who are in the running to partner the returning Wicklow man in the engine room.

Fully fit: Devin Toner, Damian Browne, Tom Denton, Mark Flanagan.

On the mend: Leo Cullen.

Out: Quinn Roux.

Back-row

The area of most concern. Leinster look like they will have to choose between the inexperienced openside Jordi Murphy and Leo Auva'a, the New Zealander they plucked from the AIL, to join Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings at the back of the scrum.

Having spoken only last week about finally getting a clean run without injury, Kevin McLaughlin's hyper-extended arm could not have come at a worse time for player or province.

He is still in the mix for this week, but returning to face the Scarlets looks more likely.

Murphy showed no fear, but a little naivete, against Munster and looks more likely to get the nod as Auva'a's selection would unbalance the backrow.

Schmidt would love to see Rhys Ruddock -- who trained yesterday -- or Dominic Ryan return, but it is still too soon, while Sean O'Brien looks like being out for the long haul.

Fully fit: Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy, Leo Auva'a, Ben Marshall.

On the mend: Kevin McLaughlin.

Out: Sean O'Brien, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock.

Irish Independent

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