Friday 18 October 2019

Leo Cullen hits out at 'nasty' headlines over semi-final team selection

Coach defends selection strategy as more tough decisions lie ahead with Blues' focus switching to Celtic Park showdown

Head coach Leo Cullen. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Head coach Leo Cullen. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

After guiding his side through a tough semi-final victory over Munster to set up a mouth-watering PRO14 final date with Glasgow Warriors next Saturday evening, Leinster coach Leo Cullen launched a strong defence of his selection strategy.

The former second-row pointedly hit out at the "nasty" media headlines surrounding his decision to make four changes to his team from the Champions Cup final defeat to Saracens and, in particular, start his captain Johnny Sexton on the bench for the RDS clash.

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Cullen is a man who chooses his public utterances carefully and had come to make a point. Asked if he'd been given a couple of headaches by the players who had come in and performed well, he instead took aim at the headline writers.

"I don't like the way... I see some of the headlines about the selections, I think people have a bit of a nasty edge," he said.

"I don't know is that the people who write the articles or doing the headlines. You know, we need to freshen up the group, surely people understand that.

"Some of the things I see, players being dropped and all this sensationalising some of the selections, I'm not a big fan of. I don't know who controls that, but it is what it is.

"Like, we work hard in the group, coaches make selections week to week depending on what we think the challenges are.

"This week will be very similar. We'll get assessed on how guys are physically, how they've come though the game, and all those bits as we normally would.

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"As I said we had to rely on a lot of players to get us to this point, and no doubt there's one or two knocks, and who are the fittest players, we'll see.

"The group are working hard for each other and that's the main thing. We train during the week and there's the opposition team on Tuesday and Thursday, the way they challenge the main team, that's what forms a lot of our behaviours on the playing pitch, how we actually go about training.

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"So the guys that train during the week last week and the role that they'll have to play for the last week of the season is going to be huge as well."

He'll have some tough decisions this week as he considers whether to recall Ireland internationals Rob Kearney, Seán O'Brien, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent and James Tracy who went from featuring against Saracens to missing out on the Munster game entirely.

Scott Fardy will almost certainly come back in to replace Devin Toner, who suffered a worrying knee injury, while Sexton is likely to captain the side at Celtic Park.

Later, Cullen was asked if the players understood his methodology around selection.

"Probably not," he conceded with a wry smile. "I try to explain it to them, so sometimes when they're listening to me it's in one ear and out the other, but that's just the way it is.

Chemistry

"I would say we don't get all the selections right, but we try to get them right. Like, we do them for all the right reasons. So you try to gauge the chemistry of the group and what we need, but other people might go about doing some things differently, so it is what it is."

His focus soon shifted to the task at hand as he called for Celtic fans to get behind his boys in blue at Celtic Park, keeping his tongue firmly in cheek as he did so.

"We are going to go to Glasgow, Celtic Park will be a great atmosphere over there," he said. "I am sure all the Celtic fans will be out supporting Leinster because I believe Glasgow are all Rangers supporters. Hopefully we will have a big crowd over there."

The Warriors will have a heavy backing in the expected 40,000 crowd at Parkhead and their team will command Leinster's attention after their scintillating performance in beating Ulster on Friday night.

If success is measured by last season's achievements, Leinster are behind, but that seems an unrealistic yardstick to measure them by.

For Cullen, it's all about getting to the big day.

"The big thing is just getting to finals," he said when asked if a win next week would make this a successful season.

"You've got to just get there. So we want to be in finals, we want to win finals. We were gutted with last week. So in terms of were we happy with last week, no, of course we weren't. If we're in a final we want to win the final.

"Now we're in a final again and we want to win the final. So, you guys are the ones who judge. The two competitions that we're in, ultimately we want to try and win the two competitions. We did that last year. We failed at the final hurdle in one of them (this year), so we don't want to fail at the final hurdle again."

The head coach was happy with the way his team had not only bounced back from their defeat to Saracens, but learnt from it.

"The period before half-time is huge, clearly, because last week we're 10-0 ahead on 35 minutes or whatever, man in the bin, but we go in at 10-all at half-time and there's a bit of a psychological thing in that," he said of the Saracens loss.

Prettiest

"This week, we get a penalty down here and kick to the sideline and get a penalty again 40m out that Ross kicks and suddenly we're 9-6 in front.

"How we manage those periods in the game, at the end of the day sometimes it doesn't have to be the prettiest - it's cup rugby so winners go on and stay in the competition and get a chance to lift the trophy. Losers are done, they're out basically."

Still, there is scope to get better against a Glasgow side with a myriad of threats, playing in a home final.

He feels the set-piece can improve, particularly the lineout, while he wants his side to find a balance between being patient and attacking with their usual ambition.

They produced arguably their best performance of the season in beating Scarlets in last year's final and it will take something similar a year on.

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