Jamie Heaslip’s return welcomed by Cullen and Leinster
Number eight has been out with a back injury since eve of game against England
Jamie Heaslip and Jack Conan in action during training with Leinster’s squad at Rosemount, UCD. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Jamie Heaslip trained on Monday afternoon for the first time since withdrawing on the eve of Ireland’s Six Nations Champions match against England with a back problem that required a surgical intervention.
“He had a small setback with his back and that’s why he’s a bit longer than we thought. Originally we thought he probably would have played one of the pre-season games. Jamie is returning to play today [Monday]. He will be gunning, ready to go,” said Cullen.
Leinster still possess a sizeable injury list that coupled with the national player management programme means that Cullen will have to juggle his resources pragmatically over the coming weeks.
Seán O’Brien (shoulder), Johnny Sexton (wrist/ankle), Robbie Henshaw (torn pectoral muscle) and Tadhg Furlong (thumb surgery) will all be back ahead of the Champions Cup matches in October, most probably for the Munster match.
Garry Ringrose is still a couple of months away from a return to competitive fare. Dave Kearney was withdrawn from the Bath win last weekend after complaining of a tight groin and he will be assessed during the week while hooker Sean Cronin came through 40-minutes with no ill effects.
Tom Daly (ruptured ACL) had surgery on a knee after damaging it in the Perpignan match and will miss the first half of the season. Prop Peter Dooley (strained bicep tendon), Noel Reid (fractured bone in hand) and hooker Bryan Byrne (strained knee ligament) won’t be available for a few weeks. Peadar Timmins (calf) won’t be considered for the Dragons game.
The parlous resources in midfield mean that Cullen will have to be by his own admission “a little bit creative” when it comes to the centre combination. One player who could profit is Fergus McFadden. Although considered primarily a wing in latter years, his formative rugby was as a centre.
He’s not averse to the idea. McFadden explained: “If I wasn’t injured so much last year I think I’d have played in the centre, because I always have done that in my time with Leinster, but the opportunity didn’t arise.
“This season I’d like to think I’ll get some time there, whether with guys injured or away on camp. We’re thin on the ground there now, with injuries, so I’ll be ready to go when called.
“The easier one to transition to is to the wing. I find you need a few games under your belt in the centre, to get really comfortable. There’s a lot more happening in defence, a lot more decisions to be made, a lot more expected of you in terms of distribution and helping the 10 out.”
His preference would be for the inside centre role, where his strength and footwork would be cherished attributes.
Leinster used 15 academy players in the pre-season games against Perpignan, Gloucester and Bath. They had five players on the Lions tour, 13 travelled to the USA and Japan with Ireland and there are others currently sidelined with injury.
Cullen admitted: “Yeah, it’s always a bit tricky for us at the start of the year because there’s a good chunk of our squad who haven’t played a pre-season game.
“So that’s always a bit of a concern for Leinster. Guys are on tour and they come back a bit little bit later. We’re very conscious of that. If you look back through the record books, Leinster are traditionally slow starters and slow out of the blocks.
“That’s always a difficult challenge for us here. There were a lot of good things from the pre-season but it doesn’t actually matter when you look back later in the season. There are no points up for grabs.
“You’re balancing it the whole time, making sure we have enough guys to play a proper competitive game against the Dragons. Some of those [Dragons] guys are playing their fourth game of the season whereas some of ours are playing their first.”