The defending Pro14 and European champions have so many options to choose from.
IT’S HARD TO recall a time when Leinster’s unrivalled reservoir of talent and truly remarkable depth chart has been as pronounced as when Leo Cullen yesterday revealed his hand for the province’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps.
With Jamison Gibson-Park and flanker Will Connors the only players unavailable through injury, Cullen was able to choose from an otherwise full deck and in rotating his resources to the tune of nine changes in personnel, was faced with a number of difficult selection decisions, no more so than in the back row.
It is an indication of the European champions’ strength in depth that last week’s captain, Rhys Ruddock, was left out of the matchday squad for tonight’s Pool 1 clash entirely, while Seán O’Brien and Scott Fardy have had to settle for a place on the bench.
Fergus McFadden, too, drops out having featured against Munster last weekend while Leinster’s bench contains no shortage of explosive firepower and oomph in the form of internationals Jack McGrath, James Tracy and Andrew Porter.
In chopping and changing his selections for the opening six rounds of Guinness Pro14 action, Cullen said yesterday the players have been managed accordingly to ensure they’re peaking at this important juncture of the season.
A dozen of tonight’s side started in last May’s Champions Cup final win over Racing 92 in Bilbao, but with everybody fit and available, Cullen and Stuart Lancaster were presented with a number of selection headaches this week. All told, it’s a rather good place to be.
James Lowe’s exploits in the win over Munster made him a shoe-in on the left wing, and Gibson-Park’s rolled ankle at least made Leinster’s two ‘non-European players’ conundrum straightforward, with Fardy back on the bench.
The fit-again Jordan Larmour comes back in on the right wing in place of McFadden, who is given the weekend off alongside the desperately unlucky Ruddock, with the eastern province opting for a back row unit of Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, while keeping the versatility of O’Brien and Fardy in reserve.
“Rhys has been exceptional, but he knows he’s not far off getting another opportunity so, it’s just making sure he parks his disappointment and gets himself ready for the next challenge,” Cullen said of his decision to drop the 27-year-old.
The Leinster head coach downplayed the strength of his squad yesterday, instead referring to it as ‘competitive’, but Rob Kearney was less understated in admitting it’s one of the strongest panels of talent the province have had in his 13 years.
You only have to look at their bench, and moreover the players not involved tonight to confirm that, with the fullback admitting Monday morning selection meetings can be quiet affairs.
“I think Monday morning team selection is quiet, the players ourselves don’t know what the strongest team is and I’m sure the coaches even question as well at times what are strongest team is.
“But you look at the names missing out, it’s without a doubt one of the strongest squads we’ve had over the last few years, if not the strongest.”
In selecting an alternative XV from the players not starting against Wasps, Leinster would have no fewer than 11 internationals in their second side, while there is still no room for the likes of Ciaran Frawley, Ed Byrne, Tom Daly, Ross Molony, Michael Bent, Ian Nagle, Noel Reid, Peter Dooley and Josh Murphy.
In total, there are two Lions — McGrath and O’Brien — and 251 international caps in that selection, with two Wallabies in Fardy (39) and Tomane (17) adding further experience in the pack and backline.
Even in losing Isa Nacewa, Richardt Strauss, Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery at the end of last season, Leinster’s squad has never looked as formidable with victory tonight matching a club record of 10 straight Champions Cup wins.
They’re a force to be reckoned with.
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