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Toner's absence adds another layer to Leinster's selection debate for Ulster

With Scott Fardy required in the second row this weekend, one of James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park could miss out.

ANOTHER BIG EUROPEAN week presents the same selection riddle for Leo Cullen and Leinster. The absence of Devin Toner through injury for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster has knock-on effects for the defending champions’ wider selection.

While the return of a number of key players from injury during last Friday’s defeat in Edinburgh has provided Cullen with a timely and significant boost, the most pressing selection issue this week again revolves around the ‘non-European player’ slots in the province’s matchday 23.

Fergus McFadden and James Lowe Could James Lowe miss out this weekend? Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Toner remains sidelined after undergoing ankle surgery last month and will miss the visit of Ulster to the Aviva Stadium this weekend [KO 5.45pm, BT Sport], meaning Scott Fardy is in pole position to start in the Leinster second row alongside James Ryan.

Wallaby Fardy, who recently signed a new contract with the province for next season, played an integral role in Leinster’s European success last term and is an outstanding deputy in the engine room, but his inclusion would mean Cullen is again forced to omit one of James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park. 

Each club are only permitted to include two ‘non-European players’ in their matchday 23 as per EPCR regulations, a ruling which meant Lowe unluckily missed out on being involved in Leinster’s run to European glory last term.

Luke McGrath made his comeback from a knee injury at Murrayfield last weekend and his return to fitness will have eased Cullen’s concerns, but the Leinster management must now decide on whether they can afford to leave Gibson-Park out at the expense of Lowe and include one of Hugh O’Sullivan and Patrick Patterson as scrum-half cover on the bench this Saturday.

O’Sullivan has made 11 senior appearances this season, including a European debut against Wasps in round six of the pool stages, while Patterson has pressed his claims recently with appearances off the bench against the Dragons and Southern Kings.

Nick McCarthy, whose form and fitness held the key to this particular selection riddle at the back-end of last season, is not available as he was de-registered from Leinster’s European squad at the expense of Patterson back in January.

“We think about these things all the time,” Cullen laughed when asked about the three-into-two headache. 

“Nick has been a little bit unlucky because he’s been out for a long period and we had Hugh and Patrick registered. Hugh has built up a huge amount of experience so far this year and he’s getting better all the time.

“Hughie leads the group well and gives really good direction. Patrick has had a little bit less in terms of where he’s at but he’s pushing hard nonetheless, has had some good cameo roles off the bench at various different stages during the year. We’re pushing ahead ok there [at scrum-half]. Those guys are making good progress.”

Whether Cullen believes either academy nine are ready to step into a European quarter-final remains to be seen, and if there are concerns over McGrath’s fitness after two months out, Leinster may have to allocate one of the overseas player spots to Gibson-Park.

Scott Fardy Fardy is expected to start in Toner's absence. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

If that is the case, Leinster have options in the second row should Fardy miss out, and similarly on the wing if Lowe is again required to sit out.

“Scott has gone well for us this season and James [Ryan], it was good to see him calling lineouts for Ireland during the Six Nations which is good in terms of his development,” Cullen continued.

“Dev will be a big loss for us as group because of the experience that he has and his ability. But a lot of guys are going well, Ross Molony, Mick Kearney played at the weekend and that’s why we played Josh Murphy in the second row, just to give us an extra option.

We feel we’re reasonably well covered at second row but it does create another layer for our three into our two debate, which gets lots of air time. It’s always there for us, nothing changes really.

In the back three, Leinster added Barry Daly and Joe Tomane to their panel as additional players for the knockout stages, while Fergus McFadden is fit again after overcoming a recent hamstring problem alongside Adam Byrne, Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Dave Kearney and Rory O’Loughlin.

Leinster had their first on-field session of the week at UCD yesterday and will get through an important body of work today ahead of Friday’s team announcement. 

As well as McGrath and McFadden, Dan Leavy also came through his return to action during the Pro14 loss to Edinburgh in round 18, with the flanker’s availability offsetting the loss of Josh van der Flier to a season-ending groin injury.

In addition to striking the right selection balance, Cullen and Lancaster have also been tasked with managing the reintegration of their international players in recent days ahead of just the second European meeting between the eastern and northern provinces.

The likes of Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Garry Ringrose, Jack Conan and Larmour were back in Leinster training gear yesterday for the first time since the end of January after returning from Six Nations duty. 

It’s not ideal to have such a limited window of preparation time for a big European fixture, but Dan McFarland and Ulster have also been faced with the same problems this week ahead of their visit to Dublin.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking to media yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“There are lots of different factors in that reintegration,” Cullen explains. 

“Firstly, there are a lot of different players who are coming off different experiences during the Six Nations campaign. There was a little bit of frustration that they didn’t give a full account of themselves, but it’s about getting guys back into our way of thinking and the way we want to play.

“They’ve been away and out of here for two months essentially, so it’s always a tricky period. For us as coaches, it’s about having nice, simple messages to try and keep things easy to understand. Guys are itching to get back and it’s great to have a big game to look forward to.

“It’s only the second time Leinster have played Ulster in European rugby, the other was the 2012 final at Twickenham. I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic occasion at the Aviva and everyone wants to be involved in that.

“It’s a good way to focus people’s minds and get over some of those things that have gone on during the Six Nations.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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