Seven year itch
Cullen poised for overdue return to Six Nations action
WHEN Leo Cullen runs out onto the Croke Park pitch tomorrow afternoon he can be forgiven for treating the occasion with the anticipation normally reserved for an international debut.
The 32-year-old has 20 caps, the most recent won last November against Fiji, but it has been a remarkable seven years since Cullen last featured in the Six Nations and last started a competitive match for Ireland.
That was when Ronan O'Gara's drop-goal saw off the Welsh in the Millennium Stadium and kept Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland on course for the 2003 Grand Slam (which England would deny them a week later at Lansdowne Road, via a red carpet stand-off).
While this lengthy Six Nations hiatus might suggest Cullen breaking a mirror at the post-match function (seven years bad luck), the actual reason behind his long wait was the man who replaced Cullen in Cardiff.
Donncha O'Callaghan won his first cap off the bench that afternoon and has gone on to amass 58 Ireland caps as twin totem with Paul O'Connell. However, once the Corkman was ruled out of tomorrow's Six Nations opener against Italy, Cullen's call-up was a formality.
His performances for Leinster since rejoining his native province from Leicester for the 2007/08 season have propelled him right back up the pecking order and his captaincy has given Michael Cheika's men an on-field direction that drove them to last year's Heineken Cup title and eased the pressure on Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll.
Although O'Callaghan's knee injury is far from ideal with the critical French examination in Paris looming around the corner, the Ireland management team are delighted to have a replacement of Cullen's experience and ability ready to step in.
Forwards coach Gert Smal said the late change has not affected preparations unduly as O'Callaghan's knee niggle over the past two weeks meant Cullen was slotting into the second row during training.
"This is why it's so important to build a squad so you have players who can fill in quite easily," said Smal. "I'm not worried about it, I'm more excited to see what we have. Leo's been around a long time and it's a great opportunity for him and a combination that can work well, Paul and Leo give you a great amount of flexibility at line-out time."
The Italians go into this meeting with the Grand Slam champions as overwhelming underdogs, trying to achieve a first Six Nations win over Ireland. They have identified the scrum as one area where they can gain an advantage and bring a powerful front-row to Dublin, spear-headed by the renowned scrummaging prowess of Martin Castrogiovanni at tight-head.
Smal has been putting his charges through rigorous live scrummaging sessions in preparation and says the Irish are not intimidated by the prospect of packing down against the scrum that destroyed the All Blacks at the San Siro last November. However, the South African -- in charge of the forwards pack that buttressed the Springboks World Cup win in 2007 -- acknowledges that this set piece is an area where Ireland need to improve.
"We don't fear them but we have to prepare properly because their pack is their strength, not just in the scrum but in the line-outs as well," said Smal.
"I would like to see us grow in the scrumming area -- if there is one area where we can grow it is scrumming and we are busy behind the scenes working on that."
John Hayes continues to lock the Irish scrum at tight-head, the one position where Ireland continue to look short of options and the Cappamore man will be nearly 38 by the 2011 World Cup. Smal made finding quality back-up for Hayes his main priority when he took on the Irish forwards, last season describing "tight-head and back-up tight-head" as the two most important positions in any squad.
Tom Court covers Cian Healy and Hayes tomorrow but has played mostly on the loose-head side for Ulster this season while Tony Buckley, starting at tight-head for the Ireland Wolfhounds against Scotland A's powerful Jon Welsh tonight, has had his scrummaging difficulties this season.
Mike Ross, on the Wolfhounds bench tonight, has looked the best scrummaging tight-head option behind Hayes but is not getting his game for Leinster. However, Smal is far more positive on the issue than he was when he first came into the Ireland set-up.
"I'm feeling much better about it now than I did last year," he added. "We still need to work on those players, we still have Tony Buckley, we still have Mike Ross, Declan Fitzpatrick is with us now as well and Tom Court can also go at tight-head. There is much more choice there now but we still have a lot to work on over the next year-and-a-half, two years but I see that as a great challenge."