Wednesday 19 December 2018

Leo Cullen reveals how close Sean O'Brien was to making Champions Cup clash with Saracens

Sean O'Brien is out of Sunday's big game. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien is out of Sunday's big game. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leo Cullen says Sean O'Brien was close to being fit enough to feature against Saracens on Sunday but ultimately the European Champions Cup quarter-final came too soon for the Tullow Tank who misses out with a shoulder issue.

That means Scott Fardy moves into the No 6 shirt for Leinster who have been forced to re-jig their pack due to injuries to O'Brien and Jack Conan who failed to recover from a knee problem in time.

Fardy is an experienced blindside flanker and started the 2015 World Cup final for Australia in the position and his selection there has allowed Cullen pick two back-rows on his bench in the form of fit-again Rhys Ruddock and up and coming No 8 Max Deegan.

"It was a very, very close call for Sean, yeah, he's worked so hard to get back in, worked hard to get back from his hip originally and then got that shoulder knock in the Scarlets away game," he said. "It's just been a frustrating window for him but he's very, very close this week.

"He was training out there today but we just felt he probably just hadn't done enough. He's not a million miles away. Scott's played there for us there as well early on.

"The agreement we had when we signed Scott was that he would be a second-row, but just with the injuries we had - Jack Conan got injured at the weekend against Ospreys as well, he would have liked to have featured this week...and some of the other back row injuries we had with Jamie (Heaslip), Josh van der Flier, Rhys is just coming back now as well, he only dropped back into training this week so we'd give him credit to get back as well, the medics and the rehab team that have been working with him, a huge amount of credit to them for getting him back as timely as they did...

"So Scott, he's played the majority of his Tests at 6 so he has probably more experience at 6 then he's had at lock.

"It's just that his role for us had been carried out at lock, primarily. So we'll see how that goes, but he's played plenty there too."

The loss of O'Brien is not an unexpected one, but it is a blow but Cullen has faith in his squad.

"We've tried to manage the group as well as possible, tried to build a lot of depth," he said.

"We have a number of injuries at the moment and it's something we've been conscious of, building depth within the squad.

"Some of those young guys have now stepped forward into the international arena and got some really good experience there as well. We're excited by the challenge. It's a pretty daunting challenge but guys have come back in pretty well and trained well this week.

"It is a challenge for sure [to integrate guys back in]. We got a number of guys back last week for the defeat in Ospreys and that was definitely a shock to the system for some of those guys back at that level.

"It was a bit of a grounding for some guys coming back in for their first game in a while for Leinster.

"That's the challenge, it's unique in terms of this tournament. You play your six pool games and there's a three month break and then you get ready for the quarter-final in a week. It is a challenge but that's what makes this tournament very, very special as well."

Leinster face the reigning champions at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday and Cullen rates it as the biggest game of his coaching tenure to date.

"Yeah, it's huge," he said. "You think of the quality Saracens have and their record in the last couple of seasons, they're the team we're all trying to chase and aspiring to get to that level.

"There's been a huge amount of working going on here in the last couple of seasons to get us to a situation where we're in a game against Saracens. because they're the team we've all been trying to chase.

"It's a fantastic challenge, and in the Aviva as well. I believe tickets are going very, very well and a crowd of what, 50,000 people, and all those little things matter for us. Support for us has been a real point of difference for us in the last couple of seasons in trying to get us back to this point."

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