In again rotating his squad by making nine changes for the opening game of this season's Champions Cup against Wasps on Friday night (kick-off 7.45pm), Leo Cullen has had to make some difficult decisions, but he interprets this as an indication of the holders' strength in depth and how well managed the squad has been.
There were always going to be tough calls, not least in the backrow, and there can have been none tougher than leaving last week's captain, Rhys Ruddock out of the match-day squad altogether, while Seán O'Brien has to be content with a place on the bench. So too Scott Fardy, while Fergus McFadden loses out to Joe Tomane in the match-day squad.
But Cullen did not concur with the theory that this was his toughest team selection.
“It’s competitive, anyway. It depends on how you define tough, but lots of guys are disappointed for sure. The backroom team have worked incredibly hard to make sure all the players are managed well. A lot of time, effort and care has gone into making sure we have as many players available as possible. The work that goes on, in the background, away from the actual rugby side of things is massive for us. With a big group we have and the demands placed that is placed upon them. We hope we’ve managed the guys well so they’re peaking at this time of year.”
Cullen also confirmed that Jamison Gibson-Park picked up an ankle injury in last Saturday's 30-22 win over Munster, which meant Leinster didn't have to omit one of their three 'non-EU' players, and so can accommodate James Lowe (in only his fourth Euro start) and Scott Fardy in the match-day 23. Unlike the latter, his fellow Australian Joe Tomane has an EU qualification.
“There are so many different parts to that conundrum I suppose but ultimately Jamison is out and the other guys have being going well so we’ve made some decisions accordingly,” said Cullen.
In addition to the nine changes in personnel, Dan Leavy shifts to blindside, with Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, and explaining his decision to revert O'Brien to the bench Cullen said: "I think the other guys have being going well. Seanie gives us good voice and presence in the group as well, so that bit of versatility he has coming off the bench I think is going to be important for us."
It will require another few weeks for O’Brien to hit optimum form.
“Yea, definitely. He has been out for so long. He came off the bench and played 55 minutes against Connacht away and got through 60 minutes at the weekend. It’s a very competitive area for us. Rhys had to shift in and play seven and then he got a knock himself, missed a small period and came back. It’s good and competitive which is what we want. Jack and Josh have had more consistent runs. We thought Dan came in and carried well for us last week so hopefully he’ll go well again.”
Wasps are missing the injured Joe Launchbury and suspended Nathan Hughes, but Cullen maintained: "You look at their team and there is a lot of power up front. They are a very quick team, a very quick team, and they've obviously brought in Lima Sopoaga which gives them a lot of X-Factor as well. He's a very good astute, tactical kicker as well and Willie le Roux at the back; a ton of pace. They've plenty of experience and we know it's going to be a good challenge for us."
Leinster are more of a prized scalp as the reigning champions but no less than with his selection, Cullen saw the positives in this.
“I’m not sure there was any target on our backs the last couple of seasons so it’s good to be back in that situation where teams are looking at us a bit more. For us we just need to focus on our own bits and understand what makes us a good team and what makes us struggle in games at certain times. We’re far from the finished product so there’s a lot of things we can get better at and that’s what we tried to go after over the course of pre-season and into the early rounds of the Pro14.
“It’s a different step-up for us this weekend against a team we struggled against a few years ago. It’s going to be a great challenge to see how far we’ve progressed.”
Leinster became only the second team in the competition's history to win nine from nine games in one campaign, and when asked if that was possible to repeat, Rob Kearney said: "It's tough to do, but there's no reason why we can't."
“You set out at the start of the year to win trophies and that’s your goal as a team of course. To do that, chances are, you are going to have to win nine games in a row. So, listen, it’s do-able but it’s more important to win one from one first.”
In a largely settled squad, one of the more significant changes has been to their coaching ticket, with Kearney's former teammate, Felipe Contepomi, taking over as backs coach Girvan Dempsey.
“Felipe’s slotted right back in, in many ways it’s as if he’s never left. He’s got a lot of experience around different parts of the world, he’s been in New Zealand, Australia, a lot of coaching in Argentina. He’s brought back a wealth of coaching experience with him.”
“What I like most about Felipe in the last few months is he is just
getting us to do the basics really, really well; particularly when we’re in the wider channels, trying to get us to play with a little bit more width, trying to convert a few more opportunities when we’ve made some space.”
“It’s still a work in progress. He’s a little bit of a perfectionist as a coach which he might not have been as a player,” said Kearney with a wry smile, “and that’s for us as players to take on board.”
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Joe Tomane.