Cullen and Dempsey back in the frame
LEINSTER COACH Michael Cheika has named an extended 28- man squad that includes Leo Cullen and Girvan Dempsey ahead of Saturday's Magners League match against Cardiff at the RDS. Cullen hasn't played since damaging a shoulder that subsequently required surgery during the province's Heineken Cup clash with Wasps at the RDS in October.
Dempsey's injury is of more recent vintage, sustained during the victory over Ulster at Ravenhill. The fullback was sidelined for last Friday's win over Connacht at the RDS but should be available for selection.
A third player who has seen a fair bit of the treatment table recently, CJ van der Linde - he suffered a calf problem on the morning of Leinster's game against Castres at Stade Pierre Antoine last month and hasn't played since - returns to the squad, as do fellow forwards Jamie Heaslip and Devin Toner, both of whom were rested last weekend.
Assuming everyone included in the enlarged squad is a viable candidate to play this weekend, coach Cheika will face some interesting selection issues that pertain not alone to Saturday's game but the following weekend when Leinster square up to Wasps at Twickenham in their pivotal European pool encounter.
The continued absence through injury of hooker Bernard Jackman - disciplinary issues notwithstanding - remains Cheika's central concern, the only irritant to distract him from making decisions based on a genuine competition for places in several areas in the team.
Leinster's forwards coach Jonno Gibbes is looking forward to Cullen's return while also celebrating the contribution of the player who has deputised in the interim, Toner.
Gibbes said: "Leo Cullen, with his experience, his personality and the way he conducts himself within the team environment will give the guys a real lift.
"I believe he will be available for this week's selection. That's a positive. Bernard Jackman is not that far away (from fitness): two guys (returning) like that will have a real positive effect. I didn't realise he (Toner) didn't play much last year. It's a credit to him and the way he's stepped up. His contribution has been massive and each performance he is getting more assured. He's become an important part of our tight five."
Gibbes also singled out Cian Healy and Seán O'Brien as young players who have grasped their opportunities when presented. The New Zealander, who returned home for a period because of a family illness, was back in time to oversee the improvement in the pack's general performance against Ulster and Connacht. It represented a pronounced step up from the disappointment of the defeat to Castres in France.
He pointed out: "The Castres game showed how important the contact area is (and it was) probably the biggest area of our game that we needed to address. Against Ulster we won the battle of the contact area and played particularly well in that respect.
"Connacht are an awfully difficult team to play against in the tackle ball area but we provided ourselves with enough opportunities in that last 20 minutes to score a couple of tries. Those two wins were generally attributable to tidying up the tackle ball and contact areas.
"Cardiff pose another big issue for us in terms of the contact area and we will have to look to dominate them behind the advantage line. If we can, we have some skillful players out wide who can do damage. We have to be hungry in the small details, nailing the little things. Physicality is pretty important. We have to be up for the challenge, prepared not to concede any inches on the gain line."
Gibbes also warned that Leinster would have to shut down Cardiff's primary ball carriers like Ma'ma Molitika and Andy Powell if the Irish side was to prosper.
Ulster coach Matt Williams has urged his charges not to dwell on a brilliant bonus point victory over Munster last weekend and instead kick on against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Friday night.
In confirming an extended 26-man squad, the Australian was able to welcome back secondrow Ryan Caldwell following injury, while also naming centres Rob Dewey and Ian Whitten and prop Bryan Young in the squad.
Carlo Del Fava, Cillian Willis, Simon Danielli and Bryn Cunningham have all been ruled out of selection through injury. Williams warned: "What we did against Munster was a real achievement, but every match is a clean slate and we are going into this game with as much determination and focus as we did Saturday's and that means taking nothing for granted.
"There are no guarantees in this league and Edinburgh are a strong team with pace on the ball. They have shown their skills with a win over league leaders, the Ospreys. This is a critical game for both sides, and we all know it will be a tough contest to the final whistle."
Meanwhile, due to the freezing weather that has gripped Britain and Ireland recently, the Ospreys have released a statement ahead of Friday night's clash with Munster guaranteeing the pitch would be playable.
It read: "Although the recent cold weather conditions have impacted on the recent sporting calendar, the Ospreys and Liberty Stadium bosses can confirm that, due to the undersoil heating system at the stadium, freezing weather conditions will not prevent the fixture on Friday night from taking place.
"We will continue to closely monitor the general weather conditions, as snow for example, could impact on arrangements/logistics outside of the stadium control, but we do not foresee such a situation arising."
Munster and Connacht - the latter host the Scarlets on Friday night - will announce squads this afternoon.
ULSTER: J Fitzpatrick, N Brady, T Court, B Botha, B Young, E O'Donoghue, M McCullough, K Dawson, R Diack, S Ferris, D Pollock, R Best, R Caldwell, F Paulo, T Nagusa, D Cave, A Trimble, R Dewey, P Marshall, C Schifcofske, I Whitten, I Boss, P Steinmetz, I Humphreys, M McCrea, P Wallace.
LEINSTER: C Healy, R McCormack, B Blaney, J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde, S Wright, L Cullen, T Hogan, M O'Kelly, D Toner, R Elsom, C Jowitt, S Keogh, S Jennings, S O'Brien, J Heaslip, C Keane, C Whitaker, I Nacewa, J Sexton, R Kearney, S Keogh, F Contepomi, L Fitzgerald, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, S Horgan, G Dempsey.