Sunday 25 August 2019

Leo Cullen explains his shock decision to bench captain Johnny Sexton for Munster semi-final

Head coach Leo Cullen during a Leinster Rugby press conference at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Head coach Leo Cullen during a Leinster Rugby press conference at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leo Cullen has explained his shock decision to drop Johnny Sexton to the bench for tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Munster as a combination of needing freshness from the start and experience off the bench.

The Leinster captain and reigning World Player of the Year will wear the No 22 jersey and take his place among the replacements at the RDS as Ross Byrne starts opposite Joey Carbery in the battle of his back-ups.

The physical toll of last week’s Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens has played a role in the decision to leave Sexton on the bench and Rob Kearney and Seán O’Brien out entirely.

Kearney recovered in time to train at the RDS today, but O’Brien was unable to prove his fitness and makes way for Josh van der Flier.

Scott Fardy is also left on the bench and Cullen is hopeful the former Wallaby and the Ireland star will come on and guide the team home.

“There are a lot of different factors but ultimately for us, we have come off a huge final which we've lost, unfortunately,” he said.

“And very similar in terms of how we tried to manage the group last year, we're trying to get a bit of fresh energy into the team and it also gives us a lot of experience coming off the bench, particularly with Johnny and Scott Fardy.

“Having those two leaders to call on later in the game if required, so there's a little bit of that in it.

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“Ross has done well during the chances he's had, played a lot of games for us this year, built up a huge amount of experience so another positive step for him as well.

“Seány didn't quite come through the week. We thought he would initially, he trained yesterday and didn't come through that and that ruled him out.

“Hopefully he'll be OK for next week if there is a next week.

“Rob is similar, yeah, exactly. He's actually OK now, he's not a million miles away.

“It's just seeing about how he gets through the week, we want fit guys ready and everyone able for the challenge we're going to face.

“It's important to have that respect for what they committed to last week and have respect for the opposition we're facing this week.

“I'm being a little vague here, hopefully everyone understands where I'm coming from.

“It's going to require a full, physical effort from everyone this week because they're an opposition that are highly motivated. I've heard numerous people in their team over the course of the season talking about how desperate they are to win silverware before leaving the province, so we know it's going to be a great challenge.”

Munster’s big selection call sees CJ Stander switch to openside as Arno Botha comes in at No 8 and Cullen said he was not surprised with the call.

“I'd heard rumblings alright, Arno Botha has been going well for them as well. A big, strong, physical presence that back-row that they have, so yeah we thought Botha would feature at some stage,” he said.

“They've a decent line-up, they've played a lot of games together and again it's going to be a great physical challenge for our players as these games always are.

“There's so much at stake, there's the PRO14 this season but there's a lot of little sub-plots as well.”

The return of van der Flier who has been out since Ireland’s victory over France in February will lift Leinster.

“Especially at this time of year it's important when you get a couple of guys back, it's a huge boost to everybody,” Cullen said.

“Josh has worked incredibly hard to get himself back which is great. At the time, I didn't think he would be back in time but he has worked very, very hard.

“He is so meticulous, Josh, and he has given himself every chance. He trained hard last week and re-integrated back into rugby and has come through everything. It's good to have him back in there.

“He's still involved in everything but in terms of full-on training, he was back last week. He has made himself available at the start of this week and he's good to go.”

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