Tuesday 20 August 2019

Victor Costello: 'Leo Cullen deserves huge credit for picking his team on form and not on reputation alone'

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Leo Cullen looking on during training at Energia Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Victor Costello

Leo Cullen made a bold selection statement before last weekend's game that could have come back to haunt him had the result been different.

In fact, for 20 minutes in the mid-part of the game, it could have gone either way.

If you go back a couple of months, the announcement of Ulster at home allowed Leinster fans to relax and plan trips for the latter stages.

During the game, our thought process reverted back to the Six Nations and of a possible exit from Europe by one of the province's greatest enemies.

Through belief and great player resource management, Leinster won this tough battle with a rejuvenated Ulster side.

There will be those who think that Leinster played into the hands of the Ulster men but apart from the devastating injury to Dan Leavy, they elevated themselves individually and as a squad and in doing so blew the World Cup selection debate wide open.

Leinster had a large representation on the Ireland squad whereas Ulster had little. This meant two things: Leinster's mental and physical form coming into this game could have been affected by Ireland's recent form whereas Ulster players had the ability to prepare and rest up for this game from six weeks prior.

Balance This is where the management got it right. The balance in selection meant that the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Ross Byrne (two players who should have been in the Irish set-up) coupled with Dave Kearney Rory O'Loughlin and Adam Byrne formed a partnership that may not have been immediately obvious but blended hunger, ambition, frustration and desire into an unstoppable performance.

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Ruddock's leadership once again came to the fore at a crucial time in Irish rugby. The same goes for Byrne's try and heroic winning penalty with an obvious leg injury.

And finally Kearney's never-say-die attitude that resulted in Jacob Stockdale's infamous failed touchdown, all these attributes are what is needed at the top level and are respected by the national coach.

John Cooney was a thorn in the side all day closely followed by Jordi Murphy (it still hurts to see him in red and white).

Both players will be worthy of World Cup selection even if they are sidelined in Europe for the remainder of the season.

For Ulster's first try, Garry Ringrose's block-down was an example of the disconnection between the Irish players and their Leinster counterparts.

Ringrose has the ability to run his way out of trouble and the attempted kick gifted Ulster an early try.

At the end of the Six Nations, Ireland turned into a bunch of individuals whereas Leinster have maintained cohesion.

Over the coming weeks, the most important goal against Treviso and Glasgow will be to build trust back into their squad.

The watching Irish management would have been enveloped in this game and the Munster game earlier - both high-intensity outings that produced some outstanding individual performances .

Leo picked a side that gave players close to the international stage a platform to perform and those back from Irish duty a platform to play back into form.

Tadhg Furlong was the perfect example as he played with a new lease of life, finding himself passing off both hands from the base of the ruck and he even had a kick into space later in the game.

This signalled to me a refreshing freedom was being felt within him. Leo and his management made calls that were unpopular from an ego point of view but in doing so he unearthed more player resources for both Ireland and Leinster for the rest of the season.

Fans leaving the Aviva Stadium would have even satisfied in the value of the performance of both sides. So what happens now in Irish rugby?

Within a weekend, we have seen Irish players come back to winning form and we have seen players who were initially discarded putting themselves into contention.

Emphasis As much as Ulster and Connacht last weekend were unlucky to miss out, the emphasis for Irish selection in a World Cup year needs to be in Leinster and Munster.

We have had two watershed moments in Irish rugby this year so far - one after the England game and the other after the Wales defeat.

For years, Irish management have promised to pick on form and last week Leinster management did exactly that.

Player management has never been as important to Irish rugby as it is now. Leo Cullen backed players and they returned the favour. Joe Schmidt needs to have faith in other players apart from the old reliables.

Dan Leavy's injury has single-handedly reduced Dublin Airport's footfall come World Cup time. As a player, he has been able to give us a lesson in competitive and abrasive all-round back-row play.

His performances for Leinster and Ireland have had more impact in a career so far than some of the great names that have stood the test of time.

Let's hope he makes a timely recovery because a nation and province's future will be determined by him.

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