Leo Cullen and Leinster braced for a fully-loaded Munster
Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery go toe-to-toe while a backrow battle for the ages awaits
Seán O’Brien makes his first start since March as Leinster take on Munster at the Aviva on Saturday night. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
With one eye on Europe, Leo Cullen has rotated his squad for Saturday’s marquee fixture against Munster, whereas their old rivals are rocking up to a virtually sold-out Aviva Stadium comparatively locked and loaded, and the Leinster head coach admitted this is a concern.
Mindful of their six-day turnaround to their Euro opener at home to Wasps, as expected the Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Cup holders have made 11 changes from the starting line-up for last week’s 20-3 win over Connacht at the Sportsground.
Somewhat surprisingly though, even though Munster have a seven-day turnaround to their difficult opener away to Exeter Chiefs, Johann van Graan has made only three changes. The net effect is that Peter O’Mahony, and the ex-Leinster trio of Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway, are all in line to start six consecutive games if they are retained for the opening two European weekends. Beirne and Carbery also made their debuts off the bench prior to this run of starts as well.
Asked if Munster naming a more settled side was a concern for him, Cullen looked down at their team sheet on the desk in front of him and admitted: “It’s always a concern, yeah.
“Munster, we know a lot of the threats they have. They’ve changed slightly this season and have a different focus. It’s hard to get a true gauge through their games, they’ve had very big wins at home and they’ve lost the two games they’ve played away.
“So, a lot of similar threats, guys we’d be familiar with. Even the guys that have come in, like Tadhg (Beirne) that we know well. Joey as well.
“Alby Mathewson is probably the one who we haven’t seen as much footage on, he’s had a period out of the game. We saw some of his clips from Toulon last year and the 50 odd minutes he had last weekend. That’s something a little bit different in the mix, but we’ll expect a nice, physical contest as normal.”
Cullen also admitted that selection is “a tricky balance this time of year” and added, “there are a lot of different variables. We’d a very tough, physical game against Connacht last week, we’ve guys coming back at different stages and so we’re trying to fit it into an overall plan., with the game next week, and how we manage the group. But ultimately we’ve tried to pick a team that we think will be able to perform on the day and we hope is going to get the result we want as well.”
As their captain Johnny Sexton is one of five players rested after starting three games in a row, so Carbery will come up against Ross Byrne in his first outing against his former province, and it was Leinster’s preference for Byrne as alternative outhalf which contributed to Carbery’s decision to move.
“Ross has been such a key figure for us, if you think of the number of starts he had last year,” said Cullen. “Off the top of my head it was 16 or 17, he played in that semi-final against Munster in the RDS and led the team unbelievably well. He started a number of games in Europe as well.”
“He’s led well this week, he’s getting better all the time. That’s what we want from all of the players, just to continuously improve, regardless of what age they are. We expect that from our most senior guys as well, having that mindset where they want to get better.”
Having been an unused member of the Irish squad in Australia, Byrne will be every much as motivated as Carbery in this duel. “That’s like any player out there, their objective is that,” said Cullen. “There’s some good talent around the place, we put a good focus on Jack Carty in Connacht last week, he’d been playing very well and we scouted him going in. Ireland have good options there.”
“There’s definitely a little bit of that, so that’s going into some of the selections and you’re looking at the broader picture as well. We didn’t expect him to get through as much, Rhys took a bang early in the game last week and came off. Seanie came on for 55 minutes last week, got through it really well and did a lot of work.
“He went well during the game last week. He’s such a strong voice, a strong, physical presence it’s good to have him back. We’ve missed him for a long time, its very much like having a new player. He’s been there in the background, he hasn’t played a huge amount and we’re trying to get him up to speed again.
“Obviously Dan got that head knock in that first game after coming back, but he’s come through everything OK now and is good to go. That’s the thing in terms of selection, we need to get guys up and firing, but there’s no bigger occasion than a close-to-sold-out Aviva Stadium so hopefully we’re ready to go.”
More than 49,000 tickets have been sold (the capacity is 51,700), which rather gives the lie to the notion that this fixture is losing its lustre in any way.
“Definitely,” said Cullen. “Even when you think the last game we played against Munster was the semi-final in the RDS and it had been so long since we had a game in the RDS, but it was an amazing occasion. There was somebody over from America, I met them during the week and said ‘you should come along to this game’. They’d never been to a rugby match before and they had been to loads of different sports events in America and were blown away by the intensity, the crowd, the occasion.
“It’s a sensational occasion, it’s definitely one to be celebrated. The crowd played an important role in that.”
With O’Mahony starting alongside CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell, the backrow collision could be worth the admission alone and Ruddock, Leinster’s captain for the day, said: “They’re players we know well and respect. Obviously I’ve played alongside them and having played against them in some massive games as well.
“They’re all quality players and even if you look at Cloete coming off the bench, when he has had his opportunity this season, he has been class and a serious threat, someone much like Beirne where you have to have all your little bits right, and Pete is much the same. Definitely a big challenge and I suppose that’s what you want to be doing, testing yourself against the best.”