Ulster’s resolve to stiffen but Leinster should pip them
Leinster’s backrow injury list ensures an opportunity for promising Josh Murphy
Josh Murphy: “Josh is very abrasive,” said Leo Cullen, “he gets through a mountain of work and that’s what coaches like.” Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Strap in, because the rugby does not let up until May.
Now we see why Leinster never want to export a single backrow diamond.
The game they play is unforgiving: Dan Leavy, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Caelan Doris and Jamie Heaslip suffer from varying degrees of pain while Josh van der Flier is presumably frozen in a cryotherapy chamber, a lá Han Solo, after his ridiculous 34 tackles during the New Year’s Day defeat of Connacht.
Leavy (lower back) and O’Brien (hip) are on the clock to be primed for the Six Nations opener in Paris on February 3rd, never mind Glasgow’s visit to Dublin next Sunday for round five of the Champions Cup.
“I could not give you a time frame,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen of O’Brien’s now annual mid season recovery. “I always find it difficult to comment on when players will return. Different injuries respond differently. Seanie’s making good progress.”
He always does.
In the meantime the cupboard needs emptying, and that’s no bad happening as the astonishing depth of talent at Cullen’s disposal gets unfurled with academy blindside Josh Murphy gifted a second start having splintered multiple rucks against the Dragons in late November.
“Josh is very abrasive,” said Cullen, “he gets through a mountain of work and that’s what coaches like. He broke his jaw at the end of the game against Gloucester but I thought in those preseason games he was really, really good so looking forward to see how he goes out there.”
Murphy, Josh not Jordi, is not your average 22-year-old professional.
He’s studying medicine in UCD, having come through St Michael’s around the same time as Leavy and James Ryan so understandably that kept him under the radar, until now.
“Bit of a slower burner in terms of coming through. He’s had his fair share of bumps and bruises but he deserves another chance.”
This evening’s Leinster openside, Jordi Murphy, Cullen added, remains “a bundle of energy” around the squad despite his imminent departure in search of regular minutes in the Ulster number seven jersey next season.
Expect a statement against his future team.
Due to the many wounded, this Leinster pack will struggle to dominate an Ulster eight that sees Iain Henderson and Rory Best return. Their presence is desperately required as Robbie Diack and Kieran Treadwell are unavailable. The Lions duo must also solve the deeply concerning display by other Ulster forwards against Munster on January 1st.
The work rate of several players, particularly Ah You (yanked off at half-time), will be compared to the guaranteed energy levels of Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath.
Leinster have set the highest standards imaginable, both sides of the ball, since toppling Munster in October. Regardless of who plays they have been relentless, whereas Ulster performances have varied between the rank average and the much-improved.
Best and Henderson should change that narrative. Also, imagine Jono Gibbes’ dark words on his first return to Dublin as an enemy coach.
Another subplot, sure to influence matters, will transpire in midfield. Following Bundee Aki’s skittling form and Robbie Henshaw’s monumental defence in November, Garry Ringrose is not a guaranteed Ireland starter right now. Ringrose partners Henshaw against Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave with an array of match winners – the future being Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour – seeking a gallop on the prairie.
“He’s still, what 22?” Cullen cautioned. “Garry is going to be hugely important to the team, we hope, in the future. People forget how young Garry actually is because he had a massive first season. It’s important you start to build again, obviously he had a pretty big [double shoulder] surgery as well, he’s trying to get over that, get his body right. There are a lot of factors he has to deal with. He works hard on his game so I wouldn’t have any worries about Garry.”
In case of emergency, Johnny Sexton also togs out. Not that Ross Byrne’s form would worry a single Leinster supporter, but the former “was keen to be involved”.
And so he shall be. Sexton’s entry, if required, should swing it.
LEINSTER: J Larmour; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, B Daly; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath (capt), J Tracy, T Furlong; D Toner, S Fardy; J Murphy, J Murphy, J Conan. Replacements: S Cronin, E Byrne, A Porter, M Kearney, M Deegan, N McCarthy, J Sexton, N Reid.
ULSTER: C Piutau; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Stewart; C Black, R Best (capt), R Ah You; P Browne, I Henderson; M Rea, S Reidy, J Deysel. Replacements: R Herring, K McCall, W Herbst, A O’Connor, N Timoney, J Cooney, J McPhillips, T Bowe.
Referee: George Clancy.
Betting: Leinster (-16 handicap) 10/11. Ulster (+16) 10/11.
Verdict: Leinster win.