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'They're all pushing for Irish starts but in reality it can't happen for both sets of players'

Bragging rights and valuable points are on the line but there’s also the small matter of competition for Irish selection.

Cullen speaking to the media this afternoon.
Cullen speaking to the media this afternoon.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

WHEN IT COMES to inter-provincial derbies between red and blue, there is little need to stoke the fire but Leo Cullen believes there will be extra bite to tomorrow’s clash as friends turn to foes.

It has always been the case for the returning internationals as they put Irish alliances to one side to battle in opposing trenches but with competition for places as high as it is, there will be no love lost come Saturday teatime.

It is only a fortnight since Leinster and Munster players shared the same dressing room but Cullen is anticipating a heated battle at the Aviva Stadium.

“They’re great games, great occasions,” the Leinster head coach said this afternoon. “The rivalry that’s there among the supporters really drives the occasions and they were always great games to be involved in as a player.

“Slightly different from a coach’s point of view but yeah because the players know each other so well – we often see it at training, guys are competing against each other they tend to be very passionate occasions.

“They’re all pushing to go from provincial starters to Irish starters and the reality is that it can’t happen for both sets of players.

Garry Ringrose chased by Jack O'Donoghue Leinster beat Munster in Limerick before Christmas. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“There’s great rivalries across the years and hopefully it will be another great occasion.”

With the fixture coming in a crucial period of the season, the stakes couldn’t be any higher as the race for the Pro12 play-offs intensify.

Earlier in the week, Rhys Ruddock described the game as a must win for the hosts, who suffered a setback at the hands of surprise leaders Connacht last week.

Nonetheless, the eastern province remain in a strong position heading into the final stretch and are boosted by the return of several internationals, most notably Johnny Sexton, this week.

“Johnny is obviously a great contributor to the group and that level of experience, especially on these big occasions, is very very important for the group,” Cullen continued.

“He’s pretty used to being in the spotlight over the last number of years. Last week was just about guys coming back off a very intense block of games which he was very heavily involved in and it was good to just manage him back in slowly and he’s trained fully this week so good to have him on board.”

Leinster have high hopes of salvaging something from a season which threatened to peter out not long after Christmas. European elimination has allowed them to concentrate their energies on the league and it has paid dividends.

Luke Fitzgerald dejected Leinster's last outing at Lansdowne Road ended in defeat. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But Cullen has been wary of throwing all of his big guns back into the mix straight away, particularly after the difficulties they encountered following the World Cup.

“It was important,” he says of the reintegration process. “A lot of them came back at various stages last week so it was good to I suppose start that reintegration process last week.

“It always poses a few challenges, it’s like learning a new language to a certain degree so it takes a bit of time.”

Leinster’s last outing at Lansdowne Road saw their slim European hopes end with defeat to Toulon but Cullen is confident a large home support will be hugely significant for his side tomorrow.

“By the sounds of it, over 40,000 tickets already sold, it’s fantastic that level of support, the level of interest in the game which just heightens that sense of responsibility from a player’s point of view.”

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