Friday 24 January 2020

Cian Tracey: 'Leinster are getting better and better - which means Leo Cullen's job gets tougher and tougher'

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

CIan Tracey

Of the 21 Leinster players who played in last month's impressive PRO14 victory against a strong Glasgow side, only seven went on to feature in the Champions Cup over the last fortnight.

That means that the other 14 players have spent the previous couple of weeks holding tackle bags and running as Northampton Saints in training.

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A handful of the younger continent got a run-out in last week's 'A' game against Munster, which, let's face it, was a major comedown after winning in Scotstoun.

It's the harsh reality of top-level professional rugby, particularly in a club that boasts such strength in depth as Leinster.

Leo Cullen used 55 players last season, which is a remarkable achievement given that Leinster only had 44 in their senior squad.

That number has increased by two this year and while such resources are the envy of most clubs in the world, Cullen has a major job on his hands to keep all of them happy.

A lot of that will come down to the ambition of the individual because some will be happy to truck along as bit-part squad players. It should be noted however, there aren't many of them in this current Leinster set-up.

Injuries will always play a part in how deep a coach has to dig into his talent pool, yet the rate with which Leinster are producing young talents, who harbour desires of playing regular Champions Cup rugby and beyond, means that the balancing act isn't easily achieved.

Cullen has done a good job of it up to this point, but it is about to become much tougher over the coming months.

Ultimately, the best players will always remain with Leinster because they will be involved in all of the big days, but the ones coming behind them are what helps make the province such an efficient machine.

Take Joey Carbery, for example. He wasn't happy playing second fiddle to Johnny Sexton and when he had his head turned by Munster, he jumped at the opportunity to leave.

There haven't been too many examples as extreme, but if you look at the back-row options, it seems like an impossible task to satisfy all of them.

Rival clubs will recognise that and it'd be naive to think that they won't be keeping tabs on the situation.

Will Connors was called up to the Ireland training squad earlier this week despite not having played in the Champions Cup at all yet, which says a lot about the potential that Andy Farrell sees in him.

After performing so well in the PRO14, Connors was unable to force his way into the European reckoning. And when you consider Dan Leavy and Jack Conan still have to come into the Leinster back-row, the risk of a major logjam occurring is very real.

"They're desperate to play and kick on," Cullen says of his younger players who are pushing for selection.

"Will has had a couple of outstanding games but Josh (van der Flier) has come in and done very, very well as well. Will just has to bide his time now. Generally, I have to say their attitude is good. Whether they understand or not, it gets explained to them, 'So this is what the plan is, and this is why this player is getting selected this week.' I wouldn't say everyone is delighted with the news but we certainly go through the process with them."

To Cullen's credit, he has created an environment where players feel that they can push on and improve.

Leinster are basically operating with two different teams at the moment though, which means that the door will again open for the likes of Connors over the coming weeks, starting at home to Ulster on Friday.

Josh Murphy is another who is desperate for more European action having made his debut off the bench in Lyon last month.

"If you play well enough you will get picked," the versatile flanker insists.

"You can see Caelan (Doris) and Rónan (Kelleher) who have been real standouts for us while the lads have been away (at the World Cup) and they have got to play. It's constantly trying to get there yourself.

"In your head you try and say that's your jersey and you should still get picked."

The delicate balancing act will continue for Cullen over the course of the season and for all the headaches it will bring, it is exactly the position any head coach wants to be in.

"If players turn around and say, 'I'm not happy because of this, this and this', then you have to respect those decisions," Cullen adds. "We can just focus on having good coaches and support staff.

"That's what we try to focus on and if the team is successful in the latter part of the season then that helps as well because if players miss out on those tight selections, but are a wider part of those good days, then they want to stay involved.

"Ultimately, they want to go on and play for Ireland, and if they get ahead of their competition at Leinster then there is a good chance that they will progress at Ireland as well.

"By moving away from that challenge, is that helping or hindering you, really? Obviously every player has to figure out what works for them. It is definitely case-by-case."

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