Cullen speaking during this afternoon's press conference at the RDS. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'We've missed out on points and this is our chance to get them back'

Leo Cullen says Leinster can’t afford to lose any further ground on Scarlets in the Pro14.

LEO CULLEN RESISTED the temptation to ease Garry Ringrose back into action against the Dragons tomorrow evening, but says there is no real concern should the centre not get minutes under his belt before next month’s Champions Cup double-header.

Ringrose has entered the final stage of his rehabilitation programme from shoulder surgery and this week returned to unrestricted training with the rest of the Leinster squad.

Cullen and the province’s medical team tracked his progress closely but in the end decided Friday’s Guinness Pro14 clash has just come too soon for the 22-year-old, who will now target the trip to Treviso next week as his comeback date.

“He’s getting closer,” Cullen said this afternoon. “He’s done a bit of training with the team so it’s just about tidying up the last bits and getting a bit of confidence in contact.

“The more exposure he gets in training the better he’ll be when he returns so he’s not a million miles away.”

Cullen was speaking minutes before it was revealed Robbie Henshaw has suffered what the IRFU described as a ‘slight hamstring strain’ and any potential lay-off for the Ireland international places greater significance on Ringrose’s fitness.

Leinster resume their season with games against Dragons and Treviso before heading into those crucial back-to-back games against Exeter Chiefs at the start of next month, and in an ideal world Ringrose would have been back up to speed at that stage.

Cullen added: “With a shoulder injury he’s been able to do a lot of training so he’s done a lot of running in the team training over the last number of weeks.

“It wouldn’t be as much of a concern than if he was coming off another injury. It’s just with a shoulder injury it’s more about tidying up those last bits of contact and he’s been integrated into the rugby and skill element for a number of weeks.

“I wouldn’t be too worried about Garry when he comes back.”

Garry Ringrose Ringrose is nearing a return but wasn't quite ready for Dragons. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

While Ringrose waits for his chance, Cullen has been boosted by the return of Isa Nacewa for tomorrow night’s visit of Dragons with the Leinster captain set to make his 175th appearance for the province.

Nacewa has been sidelined since picking up an ankle injury in the defeat of Montpellier in October and is named on the wing, with Jordan Larmour at fullback and Rory O’Loughlin and Noel Reid continuing their midfield partnership.

There is also a full Leinster debut for academy flanker Josh Murphy, who came off the bench in the latter stages of the defeat to Glasgow Warriors in the last game before the November break.

Murphy, 22, impressed during pre-season and despite suffering a jaw injury in the win over Gloucester, has worked his way back to full fitness and is rewarded with a first start at the RDS.

“Josh has worked really hard over the last couple of seasons and I thought he went really well in pre-season,” Cullen explained.

“He was unbelievably unlucky at the end in the Gloucester game, he got a crack in his jaw right at the end of the game which set him back. He’s worked really hard, he’s been in the academy system the last number of years.

“Came off the bench against Glasgow so I think it was important to reward him with a first start in the RDS. There’s some good experience around him so looking forward to seeing him play.

“Conor O’Brien started that game [in Glasgow] and he drops to the bench for tomorrow. We’re trying to keep those guys involved. They’ve trained well but this time of year is always a challenge with guys coming in and out of camp.

“We’ve had a couple of guys who have returned from injury which is always a boost. We’ve got a decent volume of work done in particular with a number of academy players and those weeks are important to us as a club as you’re getting young players more and more comfortable with systems and structures. The more familiar they become training the easier it is when they step into the team. It’s an important period.”

In addition to the returning Nacewa and a full debut for Murphy, Leinster welcome back a number of players who have been involved with Ireland over the course of the Guinness Series.

Josh Murphy Flanker Josh Murphy gets his big chance. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Jordi Murphy, who started last week’s win over Fiji, is named in the back row alongside Murphy and Max Deegan while Andrew Porter and Jack Conan — who only came back to Leinster late in the week — are among the replacements.

Overall, Cullen’s XV has an exciting blend of youth and experience which should prove too strong for a Dragons outfit who have won just twice in the Pro14 under Bernard Jackman this season.

But Cullen stresses the importance of tomorrow’s game ahead of another big block of fixtures. Leinster, sitting in third in Conference B, can’t loose any further ground on Scarlets and Ulster.

“They’re always very dangerous these games,” he states.

“The first block was a big block when you think of the 10 games and now there’s some important games coming up as it feels like we’ve missed out on points along the way which we need to get back at some stage and this is our chance.

“We’re third so we have work to do and can’t fall further behind Scarlets and even Ulster.”

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