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Cullen willing to work with all parties to ensure Sexton returns in 'best possible shape'

The eastern province face the Dragons at the RDS tonight without their first-choice out-half.

Leo Cullen Cullen was speaking at Leinster's pre-game press conference. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated 13:30

LEINSTER HEAD COACH Leo Cullen insists the province won’t rush Johnny Sexton back from injury.

The Ireland out-half was forced off early in the defeat to New Zealand in Dublin last month, having suffered a grade one hamstring injury in his right leg, a problem that forced Sexton to sit out last weekend’s victory against Australia.

The eastern province though were hoping that the 31-year-old, would be available for the next round of Champions Cup fixtures, when Leinster face an away trip to Northampton next weekend, despite Ireland coach Joe Schmidt suggesting that he may need a break in order to make a full recovery.

But Cullen insists he is working with all of the parties involved, including Schmidt, to do what’s best for Sexton in the long-term, after he spent most of this week in the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry.

“If he takes a week, or three or four weeks, whatever the case may be, we’ll just do what’s right by Johnny,” Cullen said ahead of Leinster’s Pro12 encoutner against the Dragons this evening. “I know there is huge scrutiny because he’s such a key player for Leinster and Ireland, but we’ll assess him like we will all the other players.”

“There’s a lot of joint-up thinking here. He’s one of the key assets of Irish rugby, one of the most important guys. There’s a lot of combined thoughts coming together to see what’s best for Johnny,” the head coach continued.

“We have a lot of players in that situation. We make calls on guys saying ‘that they’ll be back in two weeks’ and ‘they’ll be following their rehab’ but maybe it doesn’t work out – it may turn into six weeks.”

“We’re not going to come out and make definitive statements all the time. We just work with the players and make constant assessments.”

Ireland v New Zealand - Autumn International - Aviva Stadium Sexton was substituted off in the first-half in the home loss to the All-Blacks. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Question marks over Sexton’s fitness have been raised even before the November Tests, with the number 10 missing the opening Champions Cup fixture at home to Castres in October, and was replaced at the interval in the away loss to Montpellier.

“There’s demands in the game, he’s played so much rugby. I hear talk about his resilience and injury profile, but when you think about the amount of games he has played, roughly 250 games, it’s a lot of games,” Cullen explains.

“You’re always assessing guys post-November. They all have different bangs and knocks, but that’s just the nature of the game. We just want to get what’s right for Johnny and how do we make him stronger and more resilient.

“It’s just to get his body right. We’re not talking, Johnny is going to go off and do the Camino, or whatever else people do.

“It’s trying to make sure that next time he comes back and plays, whenever that may be, that he is in the best possible shape.”

Leinster are entering a hectic and important period of the season with the match against the Dragons at the RDS, the first of five December fixtures that include back-to-back meetings with Northampton, as well as festive inter-provincial Pro12 ties with Munster and Ulster.

However, they will be without Sean O’Brien tonight, after he failed to recover from the injury that kept him out of the last Ireland international of 2016.

“It was too short so he wasn’t going to be in the reckoning,” Cullen explained.

But youngsters Charlie Rock and Max Deegan will be on the bench, and are set to make their debuts for the province, with the latter voted the U20 World Championship Player of the Year for his performance in the Ireland number eight jersey in last summer’s tournament.

“It’s real opportunity for guys to put their hand up tomorrow. It’s a huge game for us [against the Dragons], because anytime we play at home is a huge game for us.

“The last time we were in the RDS we played against Connacht and a lot of young guys stepped up to the mark.

“We have more young guys stepping in tomorrow. It’s a huge occassion for them, so that has been our primary focus.

“When you are down players, there’s another level of responsibility on the younger guys. There is a good few Academy guys in our 23 tomorrow, we’ve had the opportunity to work with these guys very closely over the November period, which is very good for us as coaches.”

Isa Nacewa Nacewa failed to confirm who will be on kicking duties for tonight's clash. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One player to benefit from Sexton’s absence from both Leinster and Ireland has been Joey Carbery, with the 21-year-old the only Ireland player involved in the win over Australia to feature in the Leinster’s matchday squad.

And teammate Isa Nacewa has praised Carbery for making the seamless transition to the international stage, but wouldn’t be drawn on who will be on kicking duties tonight, with no official instructions from the IRFU stating that the Clontarf man should be the prefered kicker with the decision to be made by the pair and backroom team.

“We do what’s right for the team on the day. We both kicked well out there [in training], so the decision will be made,” the 34-year-old said.

“He is flying along. He is so confident in everything he does at the moment. I just can’t wait to get back out there and play with him.

“But Joey just gets on with things, that’s one of his best qualities – nothing really phases him too much. He just gets on with the job.”

Leinster:

15. Zane Kirchner
14. Adam Byrne
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Noel Reid
11. Isa Nacewa (Capt.)
10. Joey Carbery
9. Luke McGrath

1. Peter Dooley
2. James Tracy
3. Michael Bent
4. Ross Molony
5. Hayden Triggs
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Dan Leavy
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Richardt Strauss
17. Andrew Porter
18. Jeremy Loughman
19. Mike McCarthy
20. Max Deegan
21. Charlie Rock
22. Ross Byrne
23. Tom Daly

Kick-off 19:35 live on TG4

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