Leo Cullen explains what’s going on with Jamie Heaslip’s injury
Johnny Sexton among four of their five British & Irish Lions returning on Friday
Jamie Heaslip has been struggling with a back injury, and no return date has yet been set for him. Photograph: Inpho
Leinster welcome back four of their five British & Irish Lions for Friday’s visit of Edinburgh to the RDS.
Johnny Sexton will captain the team and Sean O’Brien starts at number eight while Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong return to the front-row. The return of their other Lion, Robbie Henshaw, has been deferred to Saturday week when Leinster host Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
All told, there are 11 changes from the team beaten by the Cheetahs as Fergus McFadden makes his first start of the Guinness Pro14 campaign on the right wing having recovered from a hamstring injury picked up ahead of the Southern Kings game.
Luke McGrath starts at scrum half having recovered from an arm injury that kept him out of the Cheetahs game. Scott Fardy and Devin Toner both return to the second row having missed the mini-tour to South Africa due to impending fatherhood. Toner’s wife Mary gave birth to a baby boy, Max, while Fardy’s wife Penny is still due to give birth.
Rory O’Loughlin, an early replacement for Isa Nacewa last week, starts at outside centre, while Sean Cronin and Rhys Ruddock are also promoted from the bench.
“It’s good to be back here in the RDS after our trip away,” explained head coach Leo Cullen. “It was more difficult trying to manage the group while you’re away, so it’s nice having a number of guys coming back into the mix.
“It feels like we’re at the start of the season now where we have closer to the full squad available to us. It leads in to Munster at the Aviva next week and into Europe after that, so it’s a really big block of games for us.”
On Wednesday Leinster didn’t register Jamie Heaslip in their European Champions Cup squad, and Cullen sought to clarify what is a murky picture regarding the number eight’s complicated back injury, by recalling a similar long-standing problem of his own.
“I remember I had an injury very, very similar, and I remember I was picked in a team, so similar to what happened to Jamie, and it was the day before the game, it was at home, and I think I traced it back to an exercise I did in the gym earlier in the week.
“I had this stiffness in my back that was gradually building up and I was literally lying at home watching rugby. We were playing on the Sunday and we hadn’t had a team run as we normally do on the Saturday after training on the Friday. I remember ringing Arthur Tanner, who was our doctor who has now passed away, and I rang him on the Sunday morning of the game and said, ‘Arthur, I can barely move my back here’, and that’s how suddenly it had come on for me’.
“I didn’t have surgery on it, and I still feel the effects of it now - and that was back in 2005. So it’s what, over 12 years ago and I still feel the effects of that. So they’re tricky injuries. Even this morning I was reading about Mike Sherry being out for a year with his back and now he’s back involved, so they can be slow. So apologies for vagueness, but it’s very difficult for us to give definitive answers on an injury that is grey.
“It’s a difficult time for Jamie because of that uncertainty, so that’s the way it’s going to be unfortunately. We would have loved to have seen Jamie maybe back now, we thought originally the surgery would be straight-forward, that’s what we would have hoped for, but it hasn’t been as straight-forward as we would have liked.
“That’s just the nature of the injury and everyone just needs to be patient and understand it’s a complicated injury.”
All that said and done Cullen expressed his confidence that Heaslip will return at some point.
“The thing about Jamie is that he’s had so few injuries; it’s an amazing physical resilience that he’s shown. He’s working his way back and I’m not sure how long it will be, he just needs to get himself sorted and we’ll leave him in the hands of the medics. But it’s grey in terms of return to play at the moment.”
Asked if Heaslip might return before Christmas, Cullen said: “I’m not so sure. I’m not sure. It will depend if he has to go for another procedure or not. Okay so, he has to weigh that up with the surgeon and the specialist that he’s seeing. That will be the decision he’ll have to come to himself and with the help of the medics as well.”
As to Heaslip’s exact injury, which dates back to the Irish warm-up before the England game last March and was described then as a rolled ankle before becoming a hamstring issue and then finally a back injury, Cullen described it as “a disc problem with his back. You have a disk leak when you have a microdisectomy I think they call it now.”
Again recalling his own visit to a specialist, Cullen said: “It was quite a dark picture that was painted, but then I went on a course, a rehab programme, and I was back in 12 weeks. But I definitely had issues and if I was to have my time again I probably would have opted to have this microdisectomy procedure, but there have been huge advances even since I was playing the game and sports medicine is changing all the time.”
Another of Leinster’s eight-strong contingent of back-rowers, Jordi Murphy, has completed a lengthy period of rehabilitation. Having made his return to action after 11 months out since rupturing ACL in Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago on the trip to South Africa, this marks his first home game since the Munster match at the Aviva last October, and his first at the RDS a year and a week since helping Leinster beat the Ospreys.
“It’s brilliant,” said Cullen. “That’s the nature of the game nowadays. You miss guys for certain chunks of the season, so it’s a real boost for us to get them back and it’s great for the overall competition of the group.”
In addition to captaining the side on his seasonal re-appearance, Sexton is only nine points away from becoming the all-time highest Leinster points’ scorer. Felipe Contepomi currently sits on top with 1,225 points with Sexton on 1,217.