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'We need to freshen up the group, surely people understand that'

Leo Cullen says he is not a big fan of media headlines ‘sensationalising’ some of his team selections.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS  

LEO CULLEN HAS expressed his frustration at the media’s role in ‘sensationalising’ his team selections after the decision to leave Johnny Sexton on the bench for Saturday’s Pro14 win over Munster generated debate in the build-up.

In his post-match briefing with the written media, the Leinster head coach said he thinks ‘people have a bit of a nasty edge’ after reading headlines suggesting players had been dropped.

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

“I don’t like the way…I see some of the headlines about the selections, I think people have a bit of a nasty edge,” Cullen began.

“I don’t know is that the people who write the articles or doing the headlines. You know, we need to freshen up the group, surely people understand that. Some of the things I see, players being dropped and all this sensationalising some of the selections, I’m not a big fan of. I don’t know who controls that, but it is what it is.”

Sexton was one of four players to drop out of Leinster’s starting XV at the weekend, with Rob Kearney, Seán O’Brien and Scott Fardy the other changes to the side that were beaten by Saracens, but it was the captain’s omission that drew the most attention.

In starting Ross Byrne, Cullen made the same alteration as 12 months ago following Leinster’s Champions Cup victory in Bilbao, only this time Sexton was fully fit and came off the bench for the final 20 minutes on Saturday.

As he did at Friday’s pre-match press conference, Cullen again stressed the importance of managing his resources and the changes he made last weekend — including a new replacement front row — were to inject fresh energy into his side.  

“Like we work hard in the group, coaches make selections week to week depending on what we think the challenges are,” he continued. “This week will be very similar. We’ll get assessed on how guys are physically, how they’ve come though the game, and all those bits as we normally would.

“As I said we had to rely on a lot of players to get us to this point, and no doubt there’s one or two knocks, and who are is the fittest players, we’ll see.

The group are working hard for each other and that’s the main thing. We train during the week and there’s the opposition team on Tuesday and Thursday, the way they challenge the main team, that’s what forms a lot of our behaviours on the playing pitch, how we actually go about training.

“So the guys that trained during the week last week and the role that they’ll have to play for the last week of the season is going to be huge as well.” 

Cullen was asked if the players had the same level of understanding when it comes to squad selection and rotation.

“Probably not, probably not,” he admitted. “I try to explain it to them but sometimes when they’re listening to me it’s in one ear and out the other.

Johnny Sexton celebrates after the game Sexton celebrates at the RDS. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That’s just the way it is, we have lots of different conversations with guys over the course of the season and the main thing is they have to understand what their role is for the week, we’re all in this together.

“I would say we don’t get all of the selections right, but we try to get them right. We do them for all of the right reasons and nothing else.

“You try to gauge the chemistry of the group and what you need. Other people might go about things differently, it is what it is.”

While Leinster were not at their best against Munster, Cullen’s side had too much for their rivals and have now put themselves in a position to ease the disappointment of their defeat to Sarries with back-to-back Pro14 titles. 

The coaching staff will face a number of big selection calls again this week ahead of Saturday’s decider against Glasgow Warriors at Celtic Park, with Josh van der Flier impressing on his return and Ross Byrne maturely guiding the hosts into a commanding position before Sexton came on to finish the job.

“Set-piece, particularly lineout, I thought we were not quite accurate in delivery in terms of how we launched there, so that’s one part,” Cullen added, citing areas of his side’s game they can improve on.

Again, just making sure we’re patient and getting that balance between what is a brand of rugby that we want to play that is fast, attacking but also recognising there’s times in the game when you need to play that pressure game as well.

“So, trying to strike a balance, it’s quite a difficult thing to message for players because it’s almost contradictory in itself. It’s just trying to get that balance in our game about how we apply pressure best.

“If we’re in a final we want to win the final. Now we’re in a final again, we want to win the final. The two competitions that we’re in, ultimately we want to try and win the two competitions. We did that last year. We failed at the final hurdle in one of them [this year], so we don’t want to fail at the final hurdle again.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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