Saturday 22 September 2018

Leo Cullen says Leinster are playing catch-up ahead of Pro14 crunch with Munster

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Leinster coach Leo Cullen insists his European champions are playing catch-up to Munster ahead of today's Guinness PRO14 semi-final at the RDS (3.15).

While Leinster were engaged in a gruelling 80-minute battle against Racing 92 in Bilbao and the ensuing celebrations last weekend, their rivals were able to fully focus on the game and the coach believes it is an advantage for the visitors.

With Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy missing due to injuries picked up in Bilbao, Cullen has made seven changes to his starting XV for the game while his Munster counterpart Johann van Graan has selected his strongest available side.

Having missed out on the European final, Munster's eggs were all in the PRO14 basket and they have had two weeks to prepare for Leinster after beating Edinburgh in the play-offs.

And Cullen is an admirer of how today's opponents have managed their way through a challenging campaign of change.

"They're a week and a half in front of us in terms of the preparation, with us only starting on Tuesday. That's a real challenge for us this week," Cullen said.

"They have had a better opportunity to prepare well for this game so we're fully understanding of that and it feels like we're playing catch-up all week. I've watched Munster the way they've evolved this season.

"It was a tough challenge for them when Rassie (Erasmus) decided to go back to South Africa and leaves during the middle of the season.

"It's difficult for a coach to come in at that stage of the season, so Johann van Graan has done incredibly well to keep them moving forward.

"You can see different tweaks in their play, the little tricks they have as well... it definitely adds a different dimension to their play, so we're expecting a full-on Leinster/Munster game tomorrow. They're special occasions."

In the enforced absence of Sexton, Ross Byrne starts at out-half for Leinster, with Joey Carbery deployed at full-back as JJ Hanrahan continues in the Munster No 10 shirt.

Speculation continues to rumble about the future of Carbery with Munster believed to have joined the race for his signature if he chooses to leave Leinster for more game-time.

Cullen yesterday confirmed that Leinster are in the market for an overseas signing to replace retiring captain Isa Nacewa who will certainly be playing his last RDS game today - if not his final game for Leinster if they cannot win.

The coach insisted that the skipper won't be taking over from Girvan Dempsey and says the process of replacing the Bath-bound assistant is under way.

Meanwhile, Bundee Aki will get much-needed game-time ahead of Ireland's summer tour of Australia when he captains the Barbarians against England at Twickenham tomorrow week.

His Connacht team-mates Ultan Dillane and Niyi Adeolokun will also be involved, while Cullen has indicated that Robbie Henshaw expects to be fit to travel Down Under.

Irish Independent

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