Saturday 21 September 2019

Cullen takes heart from conveyor belt of talent as Leinster look to avoid slip-up

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Stephen McCarthy /Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Stephen McCarthy /Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Leo Cullen's maiden season in charge of Leinster has been a mixed bag to say the least but the fact remains, that they arrive at the business end with their destiny firmly in their own hands.

While the calculators will be getting a workout across plenty of other grounds this afternoon, for Leinster the equation is simple: beat Treviso with a bonus point and they will have a home semi-final at the RDS.

Their Champions Cup campaign was over before it ever really got started but finishing the season as Pro12 champions would be a significant feather in the cap of the new coaching ticket.

Cullen has had his critics but he has often placed his trust in youth and it has largely paid off.

Ten youngsters from the seemingly never-ending talent pool that is the Leinster Academy made their senior debuts this season, and while the province were angered that one of their stars of the future has decided to join Connacht, it is simply part of the process.

Having used a staggering 56 players this season, the strength in depth is obvious, but too often, Leinster have been the creators of their own downfall.

Inconsistent performances coupled with some really poor discipline has cost them but club captain Isa Nacewa is adamant that it isn't an endemic problem in the squad.

Cullen will soon reflect on his first season in charge and when he does so, he will know that there is plenty for him to learn but he is eager to develop which is why the province may reap the rewards this month and in the coming seasons.

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"I enjoy the process of it," Cullen said. "It's the first year into the job, there's going to be numerous challenges, it's tough trying to manage.

"You can't buy the time. I am in the situation I'm in, I can either say 'boohoo, I'm inexperienced' or I can just get on with the job, and I'd rather just get on with the job.

"Figure out why we're winning games, figure out why we're losing games and come up with a clear plan for the players and try to manage the squad as best as possible."

In truth, Leinster should have already sealed a home semi-final but have stumbled, with three defeats in their last five games.

Treviso may be buoyed by their win over Connacht but 14 of Leinster's starting 15 are internationals and it shouldn't be forgotten that the Italians have won just three games all season, during which time they have shipped 564 points.

The Leinster model will continue to produce spades of exciting talents, the problem they face is keeping them happy with a significant amount of game-time.

Ian Madigan and Cian Kelleher are departing for that reason alone but Cullen feels that departures were part of the "cycle".

"We're not going out to the marketplace and signing a whole host of players," he said.

"That's not the way we operate. We're trying to grow players and produce young talent.

"There's so much work that goes on in Leinster to produce young players. There's something like 24 players playing in the other provinces that have come through the Leinster underage system. 24!

"It's not like we're going out to get a player who has played 50 games in Europe or whatever the case may be, so we need to push them to get to that point. That's the cycle we go through."

It's difficult to know how much Leinster will learn about themselves against one of the worst sides in the league but one thing is for sure, if they somehow fail to seal a home semi-final, the pressure on Cullen will be cranked up a notch.

O'Brien setback casts shadow over run-in

Sean O'Brien's season has been cast into further doubt after Leo Cullen revealed that the flanker has suffered a setback in his rehab programme.

The Tullow native hasn't played since tearing his hamstring in Ireland's defeat to France in February and he is facing an anxious wait to see if he will return for the Pro12 run-in.

Cullen has made four changes for the visit of Treviso with Josh van der Flier (ankle), Luke Fitzgerald (knee) and Ian Madigan (hamstring) all joining O'Brien on the casualty list.

Eoin Reddan returns to the side in place of Luke McGrath, while Mike Ross, Mick Kearney and Jordi Murphy all come in to bolster the pack.

A bonus point win would guarantee Leinster a home semi-final and Cullen is demanding a response from his players after last weekend's heavy to defeat to Ulster.

"Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards and that's what we did," he said.

"Extra pressure is piled on when you don't get a result against Ulster. That's something you have to take.

"We make these decisions because we think that's the best thing for us. How exactly it unfolds is anyone's guess. But, I think the squad is in reasonably good shape."

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster - R Kearney; I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, B Te'o, D Kearney; J Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M Kearney; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, P Dooley, T Furlong, R Molony, D Ryan, L McGrath, C Marsh, N Reid.

Benetton Treviso - J Hayward; L Nitoglia, T Iannone, A Sgarbi, A Esposito; L McLean, E Gori; M Zanusso, O Gega, S Ferrari; M Fuser, F Paulo; F Minto, A Zanni (capt), A Steyn. Reps: L Bigi, M Muccignat, S Manu, M Lazzaroni, A De Marchi, A Lucchese, J Ambrosini, E Bacchin.

REF - B Whitehouse (WRU)

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