Leinster coach Leo Cullen urges squad players to stake semi-final claim against Benetton

Leo Cullen looking on during training at Energia Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Leinster coach Leo Cullen has charged his much-changed line-up to take their chance against Benetton at the RDS tomorrow night.

As Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner move closer to making their come-backs from injury against Glasgow Warriors next week, the RDS clash represents a big opportunity for a number of squad players to force their way into Cullen’s thoughts for the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse on Easter Sunday.

Scott Fardy and captain Luke McGrath are the only survivors from the team that narrowly beat Ulster last weekend as James Lowe comes on to the wing and Joe Tomane starts at inside centre.

With Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier out for the season, Leinster’s back-row options have narrowed with Josh Murphy, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris lining out tomorrow.

“We've used this selection over the course of the season,” Cullen said.

“Josh at No 6 gives us a good physical edge, gets through a lot of work for us. Between Max and Caelan, they've been playing this No 7/8 role.

“Even though Max will be doing some of the work of the No 8, he'll wear 7. We didn't have any seven-and-a-half jerseys and it's too much work for (kitman) Johnny O'Hagan to do!

“Max and Caelan have both been excellent for us this year so those guys are young, pushing on through and getting better week-on-week.

“That's important for them to realise that they're building layers of experience all the time. It has been a good season for the two of them, they've got lots of minutes and learning all the time.

“The back-row that started last weekend have been managed for various different reasons and some of them will come back into the mix next week depending on what we go with for the Glasgow game.

“It's a great chance for guys to lay down a marker and put their hands up and say 'pick me, pick me for the team' for the big games. That semi-final in a couple of weeks that everyone wants to play in. That's the message.”

Cullen said his selection reflected the hectic end of season period ahead as Leinster play out the Guinness PRO14 campaign having long secured top spot in Conference B.

“We want to try and manage guys so we're using the time to be able to conserve some energy for what we hope is a string of big games coming up as well,” he said.

“The group is competitive and it's a great opportunity for a lot of our guys to play this weekend as well. Competition over the course of the season has been good and it's put us in pretty good stead. A great chance for guys to play and showcase what they can do.

“It's going to be a bloody tough challenge as well because Treviso were very good here last year, they've been making really steady progress under Kieran Crowley and we've a huge amount of respect for what they've done.

“They're making up the vast majority of the Italian team at the moment and yet they're still able to make progress to where they are in our conference. We're under no illusions, it will be a very tough game for us.

“There's different motivation now for the group. We want to give a good account of ourselves at the RDS and hopefully we'll have a good crowd here.

“And for the players individually, they all want to give a good account of themselves collectively as that allows them to perform better individually which gives them the opportunity to showcase their talents so they can actually get picked for some of the very big games coming up. There's lots at stake for us.”

Cullen said Henshaw and Toner could return next week against the Scots.

“Robbie and Dev have got through the week's training. If they come through next week, there is a strong possibility they'll feature next weekend. Getting guys back from medium-term injuries at this stage of the season is always very positive,” he said.

“Ross (Byrne) isn't too bad. A little bit of cramp and he had a small issue with his foot as well. We tried to manage him this week with Noel (Reid) and Ciaran (Frawley) there as well. It's a great chance for the two of them. Ciaran will hopefully feature as well. Ross is okay, he should be back next week.

“I talked to Dan (Leavy), yeah. He is just getting to terms with putting a plan in place, just making sure he has the correct procedures done and whatever way that gets mapped out for him. He's in very good hands, lots of experience in that field for him with his knee. He's in safe hands.”