Sunday 22 September 2019

Leo Cullen shows ruthless streak and other talking points from Leinster's team announcement

Leo Cullen
Leo Cullen

Tom Rooney

Following last week’s record defeat at the hands of Wasps, head coach Leo Cullen has made wholesale changes ahead of Leinster’s pivotal showdown with Bath.

The 33-6 loss at the RDS in the Pool 5 opener proved one of the most abject Leinster performances in recent memory and has left their Champions Cup campaign resting on a knife-edge.

Wasps secured their win without exerting too much effort, while their hosts looked ragged, mentally suspect and bereft of cohesion.

If Leinster are not victorious at the Rec tomorrow afternoon against a Bath team they barely overcame in last year’s quarter-final, they’ll be winless going into December’s back-to-back ties with three-in-a-row champions Toulon.

Cullen’s selection certainly reflects the urgency of the situation, as his first season at the helm threatens to unravel before the half-way mark.

Cullen shows ruthless streak

In times like these, there’s little room for sentimentality or considering previous achievements, and Cullen has acted as such. Eoin Reddan and Noel Reid have been omitted from the match-day 23, after starting against Wasps.

Based on last week’s calamity, the decision to drop Reddan appears sound. Although completely out of character, the scrum-half made far too many unforced mistakes, which cost Leinster what little momentum they could generate against a stern Wasps defence. As such, Isaac Boss starts and Like McGrath is on the bench.

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Reid has a slightly better case to feel aggrieved. He made a number of strong breaks, notably in the first half, and showed the range of his passing repertoire as he sought to give the Blues width. Cullen, apparently, was unmoved and, in an all new midfield duo, Luke Fitzgerald comes in at 12, with Ben Te’o outside him, while Fergus McFadden has been shifted to the right wing.

Pack gets a makeover

Most of the changes made to forward unit who were out-muscled by their Wasps counterparts have been enforced by injury. And, there are some who can attribute their inclusion to the motley state the province are in.

However, opportunity now knocks for those players hoping to show Cullen and co that  they can be relied upon when it matters most.

Having fallen down the Irish pecking order, Sean Cronin slots in at hooker, with Ricardt Strauss still not recovered from concussion. Cian Healy has been given the nod to start ahead of Jack McGrath, most likely for his more destructive ball-carrying.  Mike Ross is the only constant from last week’s front row.

Sean O’Brien’s concussion and Jack Conan’s recent foot injury has abbreviated Cullen’s row options, though Rhys Ruddock has been deemed fit enough to pack down at blind-side. His brand of brutish aggression was conspicuously absent from Leinster’s play against Wasps.

Jordi Murphy switches to seven, a position he has struggled with in the past, but he simply must front up because his form, for both club and country, has been  far from stellar of late.  Jamie Heaslip is at number eight, with Hayden Triggs getting his first European start alongside Devin Toner in the engine room.

Nacewa must rally the troops

There is no question that Bath are smelling blood in the water. They’ll welcome a side with a callow coaching ticket, injury woes and an apparent shortage of mettle.

At  the RDS, it was startling to see the failure of Leinster stalwarts to be counted as Wasps swarmed and the mishaps mounted. Jonathan Sexton, Heaslip, Reddan and Toner are all internationals of vast experience, though looked akin to wide-eyed rookies, which is inexcusable.

Isa Nacewa pulled up with a knee injury the morning of the match, and his inspirational qualities were sorely missed. He returns at full-back and the club captain is obligated to lead by example in deed and word. Watch how Leinster react if things go off script in the early goings; it will provide as clear an indication as any as to where they are as a side.

Sexton has to deliver

Over-hit kicks, poor posture, miscued passes and zero urgency. These were the characteristics of Sexton’s display against Wasps. Simply put, the Ireland out-half looked like a shell of his former self.

If fans hoped that his return from France would be the panacea to the Matt O’Connor era, they may have to revise those wishes. Any one else would have been at the very least benched following that nightmare, but Cullen has kept faith in his man.

Had Ian Madigan been drafted in, it would hardly have been shocking. But that hasn’t happened and the time is now for Sexton to deliver the calibre of playmaking we know he’s capable of. His side’s season rests largely on his shoulders, and Sexton is the only player Leinster possess who can almost single-handedly engineer an unlikely win at the Rec tomorrow.

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