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Back row a tricky pick for Leinster as Cullen's key leaders passed fit

Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa are fit to start the Pro14 final against the Scarlets.

ANY LEINSTER FANS with lingering doubts were able to breathe a sigh of relief at midday.

Isa Nacewa, the province’s greatest import and arguably their most important player ever, is fit to start against the Scarlets in what will be his last game for Leinster in tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 final at the Aviva Stadium [KO 6pm].

Isa Nacewa Nacewa at today's captain's run at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Patrick O'Connor/INPHO

On top of that, their second key leader has been passed fit, with Johnny Sexton returning to the 10 shirt as Leinster look to complete the first-ever Pro14/Champions Cup double.

The leadership provided by captain Nacewa and Sexton will be important as the eastern province takes on a Scarlets side desperate to retain their title and show that their comprehensive Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Leinster was not a true reflection of their quality.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen had some tricky selection calls to make up front and in the end, it’s Scott Fardy and Jordi Murphy who have to settle for bench spots.

Murphy has been superb in the back row ahead of his summer move to Ulster, while Australian Fardy has shifted into the back row impressively in recent times after spending much of the season at lock.

James Ryan and Devin Toner start in the second row, while the returning Dan Leavy will be joined in the back row by Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan.

“The combination of James and Dev is working quite well,” said Cullen. “Dev from a calling point of view, lineout-wise, has led the forwards really well this year so that bit of continuity that he gives with his leadership on the field is hugely important.

“James, in terms of the numbers he has delivered and he’s been consistent in his performances and had some big games for us.

“In terms of the back row, I think Rhys and Jack Conan give us good physicality. Dan comes back in just to freshen things up really. Jordi has done incredibly well over the period but again it’s just to try and get a bit of fresh legs in there as well.

Dan Leavy Dan Leavy is back for Leinster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Scott, I thought, gave good impact off the bench the last day [against Munster] and he’s got a great presence around the group.

“There’s a couple of other guys that were pushing hard to get picked as well. Max [Deegan] was unlucky, he came off the bench the last day and came up with that big turnover right at the end.

“It’s tough on him missing out completely but hopefully we’ve got a good balance amongst the group.”

In truth, Cullen’s pack would have looked like a real strength once again whatever way he decided to go and there is serious impact on his bench, which also includes James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Joey Carbery, Rory O’Loughlin and Nick McCarthy.

Even with their depth and array of talent in attack and defence, it is a comfort for Leinster to have their two wide old heads present and ready.

“It’s huge,” said Cullen of Sexton and Nacewa being fit. “Isa did well to get through 40 minutes last week so we don’t have to manage him for anything beyond tomorrow, that I know of! It’s great to have him back again for this game.

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“Johnny has done a good bit this week, he was touch-and-go last week, but he’s looked ok this week.

“It’s huge because it’s this amazing window for the team to do something very, very special.

“I think people sometimes just think it happens naturally. How we’ve tried to manage the group, making sure guys in the team are able to give a full account of themselves because we know it’s going to be a huge test for us.

Leo Cullen Cullen at Lansdowne Road today. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“You sometimes get the feeling that there’s this assumption that it’s just going to happen for us. It doesn’t just happen, a huge amount of work has to go into it.

“We’ve had two incredibly tight games the last two weeks, a combined winning margin of four points, and we just need to make sure we’re clear in our minds that it’s different to the semi-final when we played Scarlets before.

“They’ve gone away and completely focused on getting to this point where they can have another crack at us. We know we need to try to deliver our best performance so we’ve prepared accordingly. It’s going to take a huge effort from us.”

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Murray Kinsella

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