Wednesday 21 August 2019

Cullen puts faith in 'incredible' young star Van der Flier

Leinster's Josh van der Flier
Leinster's Josh van der Flier
David Kelly

David Kelly

As two of Ireland's stunned European flops return to domestic action in the RDS this evening, one wonders whether collective group therapy might be as much in order as an 80-minute blow-out.

Both Leinster and Ulster are already on the verge of elimination before the year is out - certainly neither can afford another slip-up - and both sides are conscious that previously perilous league form is now inextricably linked to their ongoing European fate.

Understandable, then, that there has been a fair measure of angst within both camps as they seek urgent pick-me-ups on their return from fruitless European endeavours.

"We've lost two weeks in a row so we came in on Monday and it wasn't a particularly nice place to be," said full-back Rob Kearney, included as one of eight changes - predominantly influenced by IRFU player management edicts - to the side beaten in Bath after missing both European ties with hamstring trouble.

"People are p*ssed off with each other. Everyone wants to get back on track and when you lose games like that it hurts, you can't go out onto the training field on Monday morning and pretend everything's hunky dory because it's not."

Zane Kirchner will make his 50th Leinster appearance when he starts on the right wing.

Kearney returns for the first time since the home win over Scarlets earlier this month, with Luke Fitzgerald named on the left wing as Ian Madigan starts at No 12.

Luke McGrath comes in at scrum-half to partner Jonathan Sexton in place of Isaac Boss.

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There are four changes to the pack: Jack McGrath replaces Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong starts after featuring for Leinster 'A' last week, Mike McCarthy comes in to replace Hayden Triggs and Josh van der Flier starts in the back-row after his try-scoring debut in the Champions Cup.

Sadly, Jack Conan has had to undergo yet more surgery on an ankle problem which will extend his absence from two to three months.

Ulster coach Les Kiss has introduced four new faces to a side still reeling from last week's humiliating home spanking at the hands of Saracens.

Kyle McCall, Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy are included in the pack and Peter Nelson is named at full-back.

Ruan Pienaar will play his 100th game alongside Paddy Jackson at half-back, with Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave continuing their midfield partnership.

Iain Henderson starts at lock for Ulster for the first time this season, following his appearance in the back-row last weekend, in a clear nod to the Six Nations campaign and his potential long-term future in green.

For all of Leinster's vivid struggles in Europe, they are five from six in their recent run of Pro12 games and a keen observer of Leo Cullen's influence will have alighted upon the emergence of young stars.

That the experienced pros have utterly failed to deliver is their responsibility, not necessarily the coach's.

Openside Van der Flier has proved to be one of the brightest jewels, a view franked by a try just four minutes into a sparkling European debut against Bath.


"Josh has done enough to deserve this start," enthused Cullen, who has also seen Garry Ringrose and James Tracy develop promisingly of late.

"He's done plenty in the last couple of months. He's been excellent for us, and he fully deserves his start.

"I'm not massively surprised, because he puts in an incredible amount of work in his preparation, to make sure he is as good as he can be, and there's nobody that spends more time working on their game than him.

"He's a really, really good example of a guy who has just come through the system, put his head down and you can see it in his performance. He's very, very accurate in what he delivers - week in, week out."

Ulster, horribly inconsistent this term, have struggled to compete beyond the hour mark on recent visits to Dublin - they have only won once there this century - and that experience promises to be replicated once more.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, Ben Te'o, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: J Tracy, P Dooley, M Moore, R Molony, D Ryan, E Reddan, N Reid, G Ringrose.

Ulster - P Nelson; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst, I Henderson, D Tuohy; R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams.

Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, R Lutton, R Wilson, C Henry, P Marshall, I Humphreys, L Ludik.

Ref - J Lacey (IRFU).

Leinster v Ulster,

Live, TG4/BBC NI, 7.35

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