managing bodies

Toner and Henshaw set for return as Cullen plans for Toulouse

The Leinster head coach says he will re-integrate players back into his side for Saturday’s Pro14 game against Glasgow.

LEO CULLEN WILL begin the process of re-integrating a number of his frontline players back into his squad this week as Leinster’s preparations for their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse move up a gear.

With a home semi-final in the Pro14 long secured, this two-game block — Saturday’s draw with Benetton and this weekend’s visit of Glasgow Warriors — is seen as a stepping stone towards the European showdown with the Top 14 outfit on 21 April.   

James Lowe celebrates scoring a try with Joe Tomane and Luke McGrath Did James Lowe push his case for selection at the weekend? Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

A physically-punishing hit-out against Benetton at the RDS served as an excellent learning curve for a number of young players, while it helped sharpen the fitness of Luke McGrath and Jake McGrath, allowed James Lowe show why he can be the difference in attack and gave Max Deegan and Caelan Doris the platform to again exhibit their wares.

But both the collective and individual performances are analysed through the prism of a European semi-final and whether any of the players — save for scrum-half McGrath and Fardy — involved on Saturday will actually start at the Aviva Stadium in two weekends’ time.

Deegan’s claim for the openside position in the absence of Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, although Sean O’Brien’s holiday to Dubai last week suggests Leinster are readying him for Toulouse.

Both Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner took part in Saturday’s pre-match warm-up and having come through a full training week, are due, all going well, to make their respective injury comebacks in some shape or form this Saturday.

Neither have played since Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to England in February and Cullen will be keen for both to get game-time leading into Toulouse, although he’ll be wary of exposing too many others to a ‘brutal’ Glasgow outfit, who will arrive in Dublin intent on securing a home semi-final of their own.

“A lot of guys will come back into the mix next week,” Cullen said.

It’s a fine balance, we want to be ready for the big games in the best possible shape. Our backroom team do unbelievable work to ensure guys are in the best possible shape and you want to be finishing the season strongly, not stumbling your way.

“Certain weeks you need to be able to give guys time off so they can conserve and store up energy for the next big day. Our backroom team are unbelievably good at doing that and I think our guys are in good shape for this time of year and we’re excited about the big games that are coming up.

“The focus is quite narrow for us. It’s a big game next week against Glasgow where it will be important to re-integrate a number of players back in and obviously the week after that, it’s Toulouse.”

While Cullen admitted his side were undercooked in the quarter-final win over Ulster, it’s unlikely we’ll see the likes of Johnny Sexton, James Ryan, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose again this week, the focus for many of the starters instead will be to get through an intense training week.

Scott Fardy dejected Scott Fardy after Saturday's game. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

It’s important, Cullen says, that those international players are able to train fully with the group at UCD and run through the systems and plays in a controlled environment, rather than run the risk of injury in a game where nothing tangible is on the line for Leinster.

“Next week some players will feature depending on what guys have done, you still need some game time and match sharpness,” the head coach continues.

“Some guys will play, as some guys haven’t played as much. We’ve an eight-day turnaround the week after leading into Toulouse. You have a look back at who’s done what, how they’re training and some guys will continue training next week and other guys will play. It’s case by case.

“It’s a difficult balance because some guys played five Tests during the Six Nations and then haven’t trained at all with us. Other guys have been coming and going. It’s good to have this group together now, we just want to work on getting better week-on-week now. The training time will be good for us.”

The physicality and brutality of Saturday’s 27-27 stalemate with Benetton may have ruled Mick Kearney out for the rest of the season after the second row suffered a serious shoulder injury during the first half. 

Toner’s return is a major fillip and the 32-year-old will want to get minutes under his belt on Saturday after three months on the sideline.

“It’s a big week for Dev now,” Cullen adds. “He got through this week and again the physios and rehab guys have been working really hard with him so when he does come back he’s in the best possible shape. I’m excited to see it. 

“Dev is such a consistent performer. It’s not his job but he makes other people look good. How he wins the ball, where he wins it. Ireland, Leinster, a lot of the attacks that get launched off a lineout or even from a restart is from a lot of the work he does.

“He’s a smart player, been around the block, and a ton of experience. He’s going to be important for us, we hope, over the course of this run-in.”

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