Sunday 19 January 2020

Leo Cullen's Champions Cup warning: Sloppy displays could cost players their places

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

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The message from Leo Cullen to his players yesterday was clear; this is an opportunity.

If Gavin Mullin (son of former Ireland hero Brendan) comes on against Zebre this afternoon, he'll be the 53rd player to feature for the Blues this season. Only 23 can be involved in the European Champions Cup meeting with Scarlets in a fortnight's time and so the scramble is on.

Those who played so brilliantly against Saracens are in pole position, while a number of injured players including Sean O'Brien, Jordan Larmour and Robbie Henshaw could force their way into contention if fit.

Today's game sees Cullen shake things up and hand opportunities to a host of squad men.

Only nine players remain from the match-day squad that won at the Aviva Stadium last weekend and he is likely to rotate again next week when Treviso visit Dublin.

Of those kept on, Devin Toner, captains his province for the first time and he's part of a strong tight five that sees Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong retained from last week's starting side with James Tracy starting and Mick Kearney in the second row alongside the skipper.

Cullen revealed yesterday that Rhys Ruddock is struggling with an injury he picked up against Saracens, while Luke McGrath is a concern after damaging his ankle.

There is likely to be some changes in a fortnight's time and players have been warned that only their best will do.

"For us it's concentrating on our Leinster standard of performance, what's acceptable from the players themselves," Cullen said.

"They'll go out and set that standard. If we're sloppy, we'll get into trouble. Same as Benetton next week; they're pushing hard to qualify for Europe the moment. Everyone's got something to play for.

"Players know, they should know, if they go out and give a sloppy performance from an individual point of view, somebody gets an opportunity next week and if they go well they're potentially in pole position to play in the semi-finals. Everyone knows what's at stake."

With just three regular-season games remaining in the Guinness PRO14 campaign, there is plenty at stake for the Conference B leaders who are looking to earn a home semi-final and avoid the additional fixture they would have if they finished in second or third place.

Three points ahead of Scarlets, they have the easier run-in - with both Italian teams visiting Dublin before they face Connacht away on the final day.

Top spot is in their grasp and while Michael Bradley's Zebre have improved this year and have named a strong side for today's game, Leinster should get the job done.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER - B Daly; A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, C O'Brien, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner (capt), M Kearney; Josh Murphy, D Leavy, M Deegan. Reps: B Byrne, P Dooley, V Aberladze, R Molony, P Timmins, N McCarthy, C Frawley, G Mullin.

ZEBRE - M Minozzi; G Di Guilio, G Bisegni, F Afamasaga, M Bellini; C Canna, M Violi; A Lo votti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; L Krumov, G Biagi (capt); V Bernabo, J Sarto, D Sisi. Reps: RTenga, A De Marchi, C Ah-Nau, E Bello, L Luus, G Palazzani, S Bordoli, G Vendini.

REF - I Davies (Wales)

  • Leinster v Zebre, Live, TG4, 2.0

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