Cullen delight as fit-again Healy and Ross make Leinster returns
Having watched Ireland's scrum struggle against Wales last Saturday, when Leo Cullen walked into Leinster training the following day, he may have expected to be without Mike Ross for this evening's visit of Zebre (7.30).
Despite recovering from the hamstring injury that has kept him out of action since late December, Joe Schmidt has resisted to temptation to parachute Ross straight back into the side to face France and has instead stuck with Nathan White and Tadhg Furlong.
Cian Healy (knee) is also included in the Leinster starting XV and given that Cullen is likely to be without the pair for the remainder of Ireland's Six Nations games, he fully intents on taking full advantage against a Zebre side who have never beaten the Blues.
"Mike is six to eight weeks out at this stage. I thought the guys performed pretty well (against Wales), Whitey (Nathan) and Tadhg Furlong. Tadhg has been going particularly well," Cullen said during a visit to the Centre for Cardiac Risk in Younger Persons in Tallaght Hospital yesterday.
"I think it's a good opportunity for Ireland to look at some other bodies. I think everyone is pretty aware of what Mike's main strengths are. For us, having him come back, it's a good introduction going into the pace of Test match rugby when Mike wouldn't have played a huge amount. It's probably a reasonably wise decision, you'd imagine.
"There's constant interaction between the medical group of Ireland and Leinster. They're always very aware of the progress that the players are making.
"Cian has had a couple of niggles as well, post his suspension, he went in and had a procedure done with his knee so again, he's back and is ready to go.
"I think he needs a bit of game-time as well. The guys in national camp have been going well. I thought Jack (McGrath) was outstanding last week. They need games and we're more than happy to accommodate them."
Captain Isa Nacewa also returns from injury and he echoed Cullen's thoughts in saying that having Ross and Healy available for selection was a massive boost to Leinster.
"It's absolutely great for us. The majority of time they're away at this time of the year. It just strengthens our group and their leadership and experience has been great in training this week too," Nacewa enthused.
"With so many younger guys in the team, they've been spot on as well. They've pushed as hard as they can to get back from their own injuries. There's a good few guys that can't wait for kick off."
Josh van der Flier and Sean Cronin also return from Ireland camp with the latter starting from the bench. Garry Ringrose continues his centre partnership with Ben Te'o.
"To be honest, this feels no different to the World Cup period," Nacewa maintained. "It's a genuine opportunity for guys, young and old, to push Leo and coaches to get a starting spot. That's the genuine competition that you want week-to-week.
"It's a really crucial part of the season looking at how tight it is at the top of the table. We can only focus on Zebre because they're a dogged team who will fight it out until the final whistle."
Leinster may have to stay patient at the RDS this evening but once they do, a comfortable home win should ensue.
Leinster - Z Kirchner; A Byrne, G Ringrose, B Te'o, I Nacewa (capt); C Marsh, I Boss; C Healy, J Tracy, M Ross; R Molony, H Triggs; D Ryan, J van der Flier, J Murphy. Reps: S Cronin, P Dooley, M Bent, T Denton, D Leavy, L McGrath, N Reid, C Kelleher.
Zebre - U Beyers; D Berryman, T Boni, M Pratichetti, K Van Zyl; M Azzolini, L Burgess; B Postiglioni, O Fabiani, G Roan; G Koegelenberg, M Bortolami (capt); E Caffini, J Meyer, J Cook. Reps: E Coria, A De Marchi, P Ceccaralli, F Ruzza, F Cristiano, G Toniolatti, M Muliaina, A Souare.
REF - B Whitehouse (WRU).