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Cullen can lift Leinster tyros to Cardiff victory

LEO CULLEN'S participation against France -- when he replaced Paul O'Connell with six seconds of normal time remaining -- certainly stirred up some negative reaction this week.

One aspect that no-one picked up on was that, however it came about, Cullen's introduction added freshness and impetus to the Irish scrum as they packed down for the final play of the game.

The chances of turning the French over were remote, but Cullen is an excellent scrummager and Ireland's final, desperate attempt to gain possession was heightened by his presence. Just a thought.

Cullen starts in the second-row this evening (6.30), winning his 150th cap as he leads Leinster out in Cardiff bidding to continue their recent excellent Magners League form.

As with other Magners matches involving Irish provinces this weekend, there is an incentive for international squad members, like Cullen, to hold their hand up for inclusion in the Ireland team to take on Scotland tomorrow week. However, although he was the form Irish second-row going into the Six Nations, O'Connell is getting up to battle-speed with each outing and Donncha O'Callaghan has played extremely well in both outings.

Thus, unless Declan Kidney opts for the same rotation policy he employed on the corresponding trip to Murrayfield two years ago, it is hard to see the Ireland coach going for Cullen, irrespective of how well he plays tonight.

Kevin McLaughlin is another player Kidney should be looking at, given his ability at the tail of the line-out, an area where Ireland have struggled this championship. Ireland's back-row of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and David Wallace played extremely well against France, but McLaughlin's height (6 '4") and strong all-round game makes him an interesting option for Murrayfield -- possibly for the bench.

He forms a dynamic (and lofty) back-row alongside Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock and, with Devin Toner packing down next to Cullen, line-out possession should not be an issue for Joe Schmidt's men.

The scrum is more of an issue. Clint Newland starts at tight-head, but of greater cheer to Leinster supporters will be the presence of Stan Wright in the squad for the first time this season.

Isaac Boss starts ahead of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half, which does not help the Limerick man's attempts to get in ahead of Tomas O'Leary against Scotland, but you would imagine both scrum-halves will be given enough time to impress.

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The rest of the backs, Isa Nacewa aside, are defined by their youth with Ian McKinley at out-half and Eoin O'Malley, Eamonn Sheridan, Niall Morris and Andrew Conway filling the three-quarter line.

Sheridan is an interesting case. The 21-year-old is a big unit at 6' 4" and 17 stone, forming a nice ying-yang midfield partnership with O'Malley.

Both sides are looking to maintain their top-four positions and Conway is hoping Leinster can draw self-belief from their good run of form.

"Confidence is always crucial in rugby," said the winger, who gets his seventh senior start this season. I think we need to keep the run of what the lads have done in the last few months, and what we've done in the last few weeks and, hopefully, get a few good wins in the coming weeks.

"It's been really enjoyable this year getting a few more opportunities, so, hopefully, in the next few weeks, with a few more international guys coming back and the group that's in at the moment, we can live up to expectations.


"Hopefully, by the time all the internationals come back, we have them in a better situation in the league than when they left."

The Blues will look to the likes of Xavier Rush, Paul Tito and Martyn Williams, but are short of household names in the backline.

Based on their greater experience and home advantage, Cardiff are expected to win, but Leinster, unbeaten in their last seven clashes with the Blues, have a decent pack and impact on the bench including the nous of Reddan, Wright and Nathan Hines.

It may just be enough to make it eight from eight against the Blues.

Verdict: Leinster

CARDIFF BLUES -- D Fish; R Mustoe, G Evans, D Hewitt, T James; C Sweeney, T Slater; J Yapp, G Williams, F Filise; D Jones, P Tito (capt); A Pretorious, M Williams, X Rush. Reps: R Williams, S Hobbs, S Andrews, B White, M Molitika, R Downes, D Parks, J Loxton

LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; A Conway, E O'Malley, E Sheridan, N Morris; I McKinley, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, C Newland; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin, D Ryan, R Ruddock. Reps: J Harris-Wright, J McGrath, S Wright, N Hines, S Keogh, E Reddan, I Madigan, M Keating.

REF -- C Damasco (Italy)

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