Rhys Ruddock and Fergus McFadden among the players to miss out on selection for Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps.
AN ANKLE INJURY to Jamison Gibson-Park made Leo Cullen’s selection ‘conundrum’ a little less complex this week, yet Leinster’s remarkable reservoir of talent is again evidenced in their team — and the players left out — for Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps.
Gibson-Park’s unavailability made Leinster’s decision around their ‘non-European’ players straightforward, with Cullen retaining James Lowe on the left wing and Scott Fardy coming back into the matchday 23, although the Australian must settle for a place on the bench.
With no fresh injuries to report, the defending champions go into their Pool 1 clash with Wasps at the RDS [KO 7.45pm, BT Sport] fully locked and loaded, with Kiwi winger Lowe the only non-international in their starting XV.
“It’s competitive, anyway,” Cullen smiled, at this afternoon’s pre-match press conference.
Among the players to drop out of the squad from last week’s Guinness Pro14 inter-pro victory over Munster are Rhys Ruddock, Fergus McFadden and Rory O’Loughlin, while Sean O’Brien, Jack McGrath and Ross Byrne all drop to the bench.
The back row selection must have been particularly tough. Dan Leavy, having got through a big shift at the Aviva Stadium last weekend, starts again at blindside, with Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan at seven and eight.
Ruddock, who captained the province against Munster and Cullen admitted was ‘unlucky’ this week, will feel particularly disappointed not to be involved, while having got through 55 and 60 minutes in his first two games back, O’Brien is held in reserve to make an impact from the bench.
“There are a lot of guys disappointed for sure,” Cullen continued. “The backroom team have worked incredibly hard to make sure all the players are managed well. A lot of time, effort and care has gone into making sure we have as many players available as possible.
“The work that goes in in the background away from the actual rugby side of things is massive for us. With the big group we have and the demands placed upon them. We hope we’ve managed the guys well so they’re peaking at this time of year.”
On his decision to leave O’Brien on the bench, the Leinster head coach explained: “I think the other guys have being going well. Seanie gives us good voice and presence in the group as well, so that bit of versatility he has coming off the bench I think is going to be important for us.
“It’s good and competitive which is what we want. Jack and Josh have had more consistent runs. We thought Dan came in and carried well for us last week so hopefully he’ll go well again.”
With Jordan Larmour fit again after sustaining a hip injury in Galway a fortnight ago, the 21-year-old comes back into the back three alongside Lowe and Rob Kearney, while Johnny Sexton is, as expected, recalled to captain the side in a half-back pairing with Luke McGrath.
McFadden misses out completely, and with Dave Kearney and Adam Byrne selected to play for the Leinster ‘A’ team this weekend, Joe Tomane is in line for his European debut for the club off the bench.
The Australian, a summer arrival from Montpellier, has yet to hit the ground running in blue this term, but Cullen believes the 28-year-old will become an important player for Leinster as the season progresses.
“Joe has been good, he offers a lot of versatility to the team. He has played in the centre, and before he left Australia he was predominately a winger. In France he was probably 50/50 between wing and centre so he brings us that versatility which is important over the course of the season for the squad.
“We know at certain stages during the year we’re going to miss guys so to have somebody with that level of versatility is an important quality and he’s getting better all the time. It’s always difficult for players coming in, we’ve seen over the last few years guys taking time to get up to speed with the systems here. It’s a work in progress.”
Overall, Leinster boast a formidable hand going into Friday night’s opener against Wasps, as the province bid to retain the trophy they won in Bilbao last May and stitch a fifth European star onto the club crest.
For Cullen, however, the sole focus is on tomorrow night’s challenge against Dai Young’s side in the knowledge it will be a step-up in intensity and physicality from the first six rounds of Pro14 action.
“I’m not sure there was any target on our backs the last couple of seasons so it’s good to be back in that situation where teams are looking at us a bit more,” he added.
“It’s a different step-up for us this weekend against a team we struggled against a few years ago. It’s going to be a great challenge to see how far we’ve progressed.”
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