'We're in a better place': Leinster's strength in depth forces Cullen to make big calls

Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip among those left out for Friday’s meeting with Edinburgh.

Cullen speaking at today's press conference.
Cullen speaking at today's press conference.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WITH A FULL deck to choose from, Leinster head coach Leo Cullen admits he was left to make a number of tough selection decisions for Friday’s Pro12 clash against Edinburgh.

Cullen has made wholesale changes for tomorrow evening’s game at the RDS, with just three players retained from the interpro victory over Munster a fortnight ago.

Rhys Ruddock, who captains the province against the Scottish side, Jordi Murphy and Ben Te’o are the only survivors from that outing as Cullen opts to shuffle his pack with the campaign reaching its climax.

The calibre of the players omitted from the squad, most notably Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, speaks volumes of the strength in depth at Leinster and the impression the province’s younger players have made this season.

While Cullen says there has been added ‘spice’ in training this week as competition for places intensifies, he admits having a selection headache is an added luxury at this juncture of the season.

“A lot of tough choices at the moment,” he said at this afternoon’s pre-match press conference.

“I suppose it’s well-documented that we have used 56 players so far in the Pro12 so there are 33 disappointed players that are not involved, everyone wants to play at this stage of the season.

Noel Reid Noel Reid is among those handed a start. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“As you go along you’re just trying to manage what’s best for the group and we feel we have a very strong team this week and a lot of players have a lot at stake as well as we get to this stage of the season.

“This week there has been a bit of spice there, it’s been competitive because guys want to play. We hope we have a group of players who are going to represent the group as good as possible but it’s a tough challenge.”

Leinster, currently sitting top of the Pro12 standings with just games remaining, have Rob Kearney at fullback for the first time since January while Ian Madigan and Luke McGrath will team up in the half-backs.

Sexton has been nursing a couple of ‘niggles’ since the Six Nations and with a potential semi-final and final on the horizon, the prudent move is to give the out-half additional time to recover.

Similarly, Heaslip is coming off the back of an intensely demanding couple of months having featured in every minute of Ireland’s championship campaign.

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The decision to leave both out of the squad is helped by the way so many of the province’s younger players have stepped up to the plate this season and demonstrated their ability to compete at this level.

Leo Cullen Cullen is hoping his side produce a good performance tomorrow. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We still feel we have got guys coming in and have acquitted themselves well and we want to have that competitive environment.

“If you look back, the last 10 months. June, July, August, September, some of October, January, February, March it’s more of a national focus, it’s just the way this season has been, we didn’t really get the chance to lay certain foundations down.

“The flip side of that is that we’ve also got to use a lot of younger players as well so we feel we’re in a better place now because younger players have a got a lot of exposure at this level which I think, or we certainly hope, will serve us well in the future.

“We have a squad which is very competitive now and it certainly makes picking a team very difficult.

“It’s going to be tough on a lot of guys over the next couple of weeks because everyone wants to play in these big games. We’ve only three Pro12 games left and what we hope is a semi-final after that so we’ve plenty to play for, the individuals have lots at stake and collectively as a group we have a lot at stake as well.

“We all want to finish the season out, we’ve got ourselves in a good position but we want to push on now and do as well as we possibly can.”

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