Tuesday 23 July 2019

Nobody safe as ruthless Cullen's axe ignores reputation

Out of favour: Jack McGrath (second from right) is under pressure to get back to top form after missing out on selection last week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Out of favour: Jack McGrath (second from right) is under pressure to get back to top form after missing out on selection last week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

There was much to digest when the Leinster team to face Toulouse was named last Friday and one of the most interesting sub-plots largely slipped by unnoticed.

Jack McGrath, a three-Test Lion and Ireland regular was omitted with the uncapped Ed Byrne preferred to provide cover for Cian Healy for the biggest game of the province's season.

McGrath made his comeback from injury against Ulster a week previously but was not deemed ready for the game.

In other clubs and perhaps even at Leinster in other times, the Ireland stalwart would have been selected on reputation alone. He is a proven performer who has delivered over and over again.

But at the European champions, nobody is safe.

This week, Seán O'Brien and Robbie Henshaw are back in full training and are, at the time of writing, considered available for selection.

Brilliantly

Both men would walk into any team in Europe, but Leo Cullen is faced with a team who performed brilliantly against the resurgent four-time Heineken Cup champions and must consider whether Rory O'Loughlin or Josh van der Flier deserve to be deposed.

If they are fit, it would suit Ireland to get them game time. Neither man has played since November and the Six Nations is coming up fast.

But while he is in constant dialogue with the national team management, Cullen's first responsibility is to the province; particularly on European weeks - when he is generally given free rein.

In his first season as coach, he was perhaps guilty of picking out-of-form internationals for the biggest games but one of the key things he and his management team took from their horrible European campaign and PRO14 final loss to Connacht was that they should reward form regardless of Ireland caps.

The following year, Rob Kearney found himself on the bench for an away trip to Castres as Cullen went for Isa Nacewa at full-back, with Adam Byrne and O'Loughlin on the wings.

Since then, he has backed young guns at key stages and gotten big rewards as the men in blue returned to the top of the European tree.

There are a number of factors behind the province's success, with the appointment of Stuart Lancaster and his work on the training ground complementing the hugely-talented players coming through the academy to join an experienced core of winners and internationals. Getting selection right has been key.

John Fogarty was part of the dressing-room that delivered the first Leinster Heineken Cup in 2009 and is the scrum coach with the senior set-up now.

And he says selection is a delicate balance for the coaching ticket.

"As a player I tried to understand the coaches that dropped me - there were quite a few of them! - to try and understand the reason, not what I could do better but the reason in their minds because I felt I could add to the team's performance," he explained.

"Trying to understand the reason as a player helps you be OK with it then, because it helps you understand the bigger picture.

"Leo is really, really good at the big-picture stuff and letting players understand where they're sitting right now.

"If one of the best players is not performing, bumbling along, he's not improving.

"He has to understand and know that he has to continue improving so he's good for us and Ireland.

"It's the same with an academy player, just floating along, (saying) 'it's great, I'm here, just waiting for an opportunity', he has to understand and know.

"Selection is a brilliant tool to straighten bodies out. I'm a young coach and I think you do figure that out and I think we've figured that out as we've gone along. I hope we keep improving as well."

Fogarty is eager to point out that McGrath responded well to his exclusion last weekend.

He is likely to return to the match-day squad for Sunday's final game against Wasps (3.15), but Byrne's form is compelling. Interestingly, the loosehead is Leinster's top try-scorer this season.

"Jack's a Lion, he wasn't involved last week, he was just about ready," the former hooker explained.

"He was a champion. He played his part, he gave feedback to the players that were starting on scrum sessions, he added value in meetings.

The value of someone like Jack in your group is huge and I can't say enough about him last week.

"This week is a very different week now. "Our motivation is the team. The team has to perform for all of us.

"So, it becomes our focus. Your energy goes into that group. It's an uncomfortable conversation, for sure.

"First of all, you care about the player. You do care about the player an awful lot. You understand what he has delivered in the past. You don't want to lose out on anything either.

"It is a difficult conversation, but I guess that's part of the job for them and for us.

"We want to be as honest as we can be with the players. Leo's door is always open, he says it to the guys every single week when he picks the team. One of the most important parts of the week is when he picks the team. That's when you feel the most for the players.

"We are as honest as we can be, picking the right team for the opposition we're playing against. The best thing we can do for Leinster is to pick the best team."

That means nobody is safe and that lack of safety is keeping the front-liners on edge and ensuring they perform.

Irish Independent

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