Tuesday 22 May 2018

Victor Costello gives his verdict on Leo Cullen's two big selection dilemmas for Champions Cup final

Victor Costello wants to see Fergus McFadden and Jordi Murphy start over James Lowe and Jack Conan
Victor Costello wants to see Fergus McFadden and Jordi Murphy start over James Lowe and Jack Conan
Fergus McFadden in training. Photo: Sportsfile

Victor Costello

In rugby, things can change very quickly, and Jordi Murphy is finding that out to the full extent.

Looking back to Chicago two years ago, Murphy was in the form of his life, but that serious knee injury he picked up in that famous win over the All Blacks left him playing catch up.

Jordi Murphy being tackled by Scarlets’ John Barclay. Photo: Sportsfile
Jordi Murphy being tackled by Scarlets’ John Barclay. Photo: Sportsfile

Fast forward 18 months, he has not only well and truly caught up with the rest, but in actual fact he has passed out other players.

Injuries to the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan have of course helped in that regard, but as Bilbao fast approaches, the Leinster coaching staff have a big decision to make as to who starts at No 8.

In my mind, however, it is not as complicated as others make out. For me, Murphy starts, with Conan providing huge impact from the bench.

One wonders what has been going through Murphy's mind these past few weeks as he has played his part in Leinster getting to a Champions Cup final, all the while watching his soon-to-be new club struggling to even qualify for next season's tournament.

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

Brian O'Driscoll upset a few people when he called Ulster a 'basket case' and I know Jacob Stockdale refuted those comments, but the bottom line is Rory Best said that they weren't enjoying their rugby,

Ulster don't look like they are enjoying their rugby. The high turnover of coaches up north shows that there is a lot hostility and a lot of unhappiness in that team.

The reality is that Joe Schmidt could be coaching Ulster and the time-line would still be very similar. For whatever reason, the culture is not right. From my point of view, if I was in a similar situation as Murphy, I wouldn't go next or near the place. That might upset people, but that is how I feel.

I will be very sorry to see Jordi Murphy go, and I really hope it works out for him, but I reckon, at this stage, and considering the amount of game-time he has gotten recently, he may well have a few regrets.

Murphy has a lot of years left in his career and I would hate to see some of those wasted up in Belfast. It's never too late to back out, and this is his career we are talking about. He needs to make the decision

Murphy is a player who, when given a starting spot over a prolonged period of time, always delivers for club and country.

During both semi-finals last year, Conan wasn't visible for the start of either game. You cannot afford that at any stage, let alone at the business end of the season.

In the defeat to Clermont, it took a long time for a Leinster player to put his hand up and do something. Against Racing next weekend, the back-row battle will be crucial, and Leinster need everyone firing on all cylinders.

Conan burst onto the scene a couple of years ago - huge work rate, powerful runner, hungry, ambitious and abrasive.

If you look at Jamie Heaslip or Seán O'Brien down through the years, they are really polished players. The same can be said for Dan Leavy now.

Conan has come back from his own injury problems and the bottom line is, you have to keep momentum and all of that is currently with Jordi Murphy.

He is a big-game performer, and from the off, which is why I would start him against Racing.

Losing to Connacht in the manner that Leinster did won't have helped the mood around UCD this week, but in the grand scheme of things, I don't believe it will have that much of an impact.

Every generation goes to the Sportsground and loses. Connacht always raise their game for Leinster. It's a real pain because you're left wondering why they don't perform like this more often over the course of the season.

That was the case again last weekend. Leinster were well beaten a hungry Connacht side who aren't afraid of Leinster.

It was a fitting send-off for John Muldoon, who was playing when I was still around. There will never be another John Muldoon for an Irish province again, mark my words.

He is a person that has united the provinces of Ireland in their plaudits for a single player. Not since Brian O'Driscoll or ROG has that happened.

In cases like that when you are just so badly beaten, you just organically move on and I think that's what Leinster will have done.

At the end of the day, they have a very good foundation under their belts. They were excellent in the pool stages and they maintained that form against Saracens and the Scarlets.

Apart from No 8, the other big selection call is picking two between Scott Fardy, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe.

Fardy is one of the first names on the team sheet, so no arguments there. Lowe's attack comes at a price, however.

When he first came on the scene, everyone thought he was a gas man that is gelling the team together and while that is fantastic, you only have to look at Fergus McFadden's performance against the Scarlets to see the other side of the coin.

McFadden is pure will, pure heart, pure determination. He has probably lost a bit of his speed but there is no doubt that he has got a blue heart in there. He is going to give you 110pc every time.

Lowe's defensive issues have been highlighted enough this season and if we are seeing that, you can be sure Racing have done a huge amount of homework on it as well. Any weak area, place-kicking, tackling, passing etc will be ruthlessly exposed in a European Cup final.

If Luke McGrath is fit, I think Leinster will go for Fardy and Lowe for what they can bring in attack, but I would be going in there worried if that is the case.

McFadden brings a lot to the party, particularly in the big games, like Murphy, and that's why I would opt for both of those guys with Lowe and Conan on the bench.

Leinster will be favourites against Racing but they are going to be tested. The French side will back themselves to match their intensity and we saw how they blew Munster off the park with it in the first 20 minutes.

However, Leinster will know exactly what to expect and they are a fitter team. Having the kind of aforementioned selection headaches is exactly what the coaches want a week out from the biggest game of the season.

Irish Independent

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