Leo Cullen backs new-look Leinster side to take opportunities against Zebre

Side contains 13 changes from win over Dragons as Adam Byrne makes welcome return

Adam Byrne returns for his first Leinster game in 22 months due to hamstring and quad injuries. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Adam Byrne returns for his first Leinster game in 22 months due to hamstring and quad injuries. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

 

Leinster v Zebre, RDS, Saturday, 1pm – Live on RTÉ 2, Premier Sports 2

What Leinster may lack in cohesion as a result of Leo Cullen making 13 changes to his starting XV could be more than compensated for with enthusiasm.

Of the 13 changes, 11 will be making their first starts of the season, and in a curtailed 18-game format opportunity knocks for Leinster’s first game at the RDS with a sizeable crowd since Ryan Baird’s hat-trick in the win over Glasgow in February 2019.

“That’s the balance,” said Cullen on Friday, noting the reduced five-game run-in to November.

“We always want to give guys an opportunity in this first block. It’s exciting for some of those guys this weekend. A very frustrated group off the back of last week’s performance against Dragons. It’s good to get a win away from home but we probably didn’t manage the conditions particularly well. I believe there is a bit of rain forecast tomorrow so a bit of practice for us playing in the rain.”

Adam Byrne returns for his first game in 22 months due to hamstring and quad injuries while Dan Leavy, sharp off the bench last week, makes only his fifth start since that horrific knee injury against Ulster in March 2019.

Devin Toner starts his 17th campaign and it’s not as if the bench are liable to ease up, given it includes a seasonal debut for Rónan Kelleher in his first game since scoring four tries for Ireland 13 weeks ago against the USA. There’s also some bloke called Johnny Sexton there too.

Furthermore, with an entirely changed team from last week, when competitive for the first half-hour before errors began compounding errors against Ulster, it’s a test of Zebre’s strength in depth too.

An inexperienced side features a 20-year-old debutant at flanker in Italy’s under-20 Six Nations captain Luca Andreani, one of four forwards to have played less than five games.

LEINSTER: Jimmy O’Brien; Adam Byrne, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Jordan Larmour; Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Ed Byrne, Seán Cronin, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ryan Baird, Devin Toner; Dan Leavy, Scott Penny, Rhys Ruddock.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Peter Dooley, Cian Healy, Ross Molony, Max Deegan, Nick McCarthy, Johnny Sexton, Rob Russell

ZEBRE: Jacopo Trulla; Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronje, Enrico Lucchin, Mattia Bellini; Antonio Rizzi, Nicolo Casilio; Andrea Lovotti, Oliviero Fabiani (capt), Ion Neculai; Cristian Stoian, Andrea Zambonin; Iacopo Bianchi, Luca Andreani, Renato Giammarioli.

Replacements: Massimo Ceciliani, Danilo Fischetti, Matteo Nocera, David Sisi, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Tommaso Boni, Paolo Pescetto

Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU).

Verdict: Leinster to win with a bonus point.

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