Leinster v Munster: ‘We’re all hoping to learn from Jacques when he comes in,’ says Leo Cullen

Munster’s thrilling start and ambition confirmed that the auld rivalry appears to have been rebooted

In a cruelly timed twist of fate, the normally durable Ross Byrne seems likely to miss Leinster’s upcoming run of three interpro derbies and their opening Champions Cup jousts against La Rochelle and Sale due to the suspected torn bicep he sustained in Leinster’s 21-16 win over Munster on Saturday.

Pending the results of a scan, the injury could also jeopardise his availability for the Six Nations, with Ireland’s opening game against France in Marseille 10 weeks away.

Byrne suffered the injury when attempting to prevent Craig Casey finishing off Munster’s fifth-minute opening try. He landed awkwardly on his left arm and cut a frustrated figure as he made his way through the players’ tunnel before re-emerging with an ice pack on his upper left arm.

On the premise that he was likely to remain Leinster’s go-to man in the immediate post-Johnny Sexton era, Byrne had been on the front row of the grid along with Jack Crowley to start that opening game in Marseille.

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This ill-timed setback for Byrne eases the door ajar for Crowley, who gave another assured all-round performance on Saturday night and also Byrne’s brother Harry and Ciaran Frawley in Leinster. Frawley replaced the elder Byrne fairly seamlessly, matching Crowley’s composure and variety as the two pretenders demonstrated there will be life after Sexton, who was among the 49,246 crowd.

Cullen agreed that Frawley offers something different from other out-halves on the Irish scene.

“It’s that bit of versatility that he has, because he’s a really good broken-field runner as well and he’s a great striker of the ball. He’s a very important player for us, and we wanted to see him step in there and that’s the way it played out so I’m glad he went well.”

Frawley’s versatility is a double-edged sword, for it contributed to him having Saturday’s extended run at outhalf, yet he does not want to become a jack of all trades. This performance has given Cullen and co more to think about.

“We’re open-minded about a lot of guys all the way through the season, but rugby is a team game as well and you need guys who are willing to step in and do what’s best for the team. It’s a real point of difference for him in many ways. He’s a seriously good, versatile player for us.”

Retaining only three players from the 16-15 semi-final defeat by the same opposition at the same venue, as expected Leinster gained revenge. However, Munster’s thrilling start, obduracy and ambition confirmed that the auld rivalry appears to have been rebooted, although Cullen maintained: “We would have always thought it was rebooted, all the time.

“It’s an easy comment post-event, but every week you play these games and we’ve had some unbelievably tight wins over the years as well; particularly some of the games down in Thomond Park and we’re down there again next week.

“I’m very conscious of that, we’ve come out on top by a massive one-point margin in a few of those games and it’s just sometimes on the day, just taking a couple of opportunities. But the [interpro] teams don’t go away.”

In welcoming back 10 Irish front-liners over the last two games Leinster still made plenty of errors ahead of a trek to the Sportsground next Saturday to face Connacht. As this comes a week ahead of their trip to La Rochelle, Cullen has a difficult balancing act in affording game time to a big squad while finding more cohesion.

“It’s a bit of everything, isn’t it?” said Cullen. “We’ve done this before, when you think over the years. There’s no right and wrong, but we’ll have plans in terms of how the weeks fall.

“It’s making sure that whatever the plan is, there’s method to the madness. Some guys need more time, other guys have had a decent stint and it’s trying to get that balance. The good thing is we have 40-odd guys ready to go and hungry to play.”

Leinster won as much by dint of their defence as their attack, with Sean O’Brien and the players leaving a strong base for Jacques Nienaber. This paper understands that the World Cup-winning head coach arrived in Ireland last Thursday and will formally begin working with the province today (Monday).

“Seanie’s been excellent. He’s stepping into the role,” said Cullen. “He’s a brilliant character, so we’re very lucky to have him. He’s starting his journey as a defence coach and it’s been a great experience for him, in that role as Contact Skills.

“We’re all hoping to learn from Jacques when he comes in and Seánie will be someone who will grow a lot with his presence. It’s about refining what we do and getting better.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times