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Back row injuries force Cullen's hand but Fardy's experience at six a major fillip

The Australian has shifted to the back of the scrum as Leinster face into a ‘daunting’ challenge against Saracens.

Cullen speaking at this afternoon's press conference.
Cullen speaking at this afternoon's press conference.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

NEEDS MUST, BUT Scott Fardy’s considerable pedigree on the left side of the scrum is at least a source of comfort for Leinster amid a host of back row casualties for Sunday’s Champions Cup shoot-out with Saracens.

The 33-year-old, signed by the province primarily as a second row, has made all but one of his 17 Leinster appearances in the number five jersey, but shifts to blindside flanker for the visit of the defending champions to Dublin.

While the reshuffling of the back row is far from ideal for Leo Cullen, the fact Fardy played most of his 39-Test international career for Australia at six — including the 2015 World Cup final — means the disruption shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Dan Leavy is back from his exploits with Ireland to start at seven while Jordi Murphy, so impressive off the bench towards the back end of the Six Nations, deputises at number eight with Jack Conan now sidelined as well.

Conan sustained a knee injury in the defeat to Ospreys last weekend while it was decided that dropping Sean O’Brien back in having played just a handful of minutes since December was too much of a risk — Rhys Ruddock and Max Deegan provide the cover on the bench.

It means Devin Toner and James Ryan continue their second row partnership in the blue of Leinster in what promises to be an enthralling, but pivotal, match up against the fit-again George Kruis and Maro Itoje.

“It should be a good battle, like it is across the board, there are some great battles but that’s what you expect at the quarter-final stage,” Cullen says.

As for Fardy, the Leinster head coach has no concerns about the Wallaby slotting into the back row having started there just once — against Glasgow in November — during his time with the province.

“The agreement we had when we signed Scott was that he would be a second row, but just with the injuries we’ve had – Jack Conan would have liked to have featured this week and some of the other back row injuries we had with Jamie [Heaslip], Josh van der Flier and Rhys [Ruddock] is just coming back now as well.

Scott Fardy Fardy starts at six for Leinster on Sunday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Rhys only dropped back into training this week so we’d give him credit to get back as well, the medics and the rehab team that have been working with him, a huge amount of credit to them for getting him back as timely as they did.

“Scott has played the majority of his Tests at six so he has probably more experience there then he’s had at lock. It’s just that his role for us had been carried out at lock, primarily. So we’ll see how that goes, but he’s played plenty there too.”

Elsewhere, Leinster have been able to recall their other Grand Slam winners with Rob Kearney returning to the fullback position in a back three containing Fergus McFadden, who has recovered from a head knock, and Kiwi James Lowe.

Isa Nacewa — managed for most of the Six Nations period — partners Garry Ringrose in midfield for his first appearance since the Kings at the start of February, while Cian Healy again gets the nod over Jack McGrath at loosehead.

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As well as preparing for a ‘daunting’ challenge against Mark McCall’s back-to-back European champions, the test for Cullen and Stuart Lancaster has been to reintegrate those internationals back into the mix in the space of a week.

We’ve tried to manage the group as well as possible, tried to build a lot of depth,” he continued, at this afternoon’s team announcement press conference.

“We have a number of injuries at the moment and it’s something we’ve been conscious of, building depth within the squad. Some of those young guys have now stepped forward into the international arena and got some really good experience there as well.

“We’re excited by the challenge. It’s a pretty daunting challenge but guys have come back in pretty well and trained well this week.

“It is a challenge for sure [to integrate guys back in]. We got a number of guys back last week for the defeat in Ospreys and that was definitely a shock to the system for some of those guys back at that level. It was a bit of a grounding for some guys coming back in for their first game in a while for Leinster.

“That’s the challenge, it’s unique in terms of this tournament. You play your six pool games and there’s a three-month break and then you get ready for the quarter-final in a week. It is a challenge but that’s what makes this tournament very, very special as well.”

Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa Cullen and captain Isa Nacewa at Leinster HQ earlier. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Six wins from six in the pool stages, advancing to the knockout stages as top seeds, Leinster head into Sunday’s showdown [KO 3.30pm, BT Sport] as favourites to progress into the last four, where they would face the winners of Friday’s Scarlets and La Rochelle tie.

The players have spoken this week about emulating the achievements of the 2008/09 season when Ireland’s last Grand Slam triumph was followed by European glory for the eastern province.

Sunday will not only be a defining day in Leinster’s season, but will also provide the ultimate litmus test and an accurate gauge as to how much progress they’ve really made during the Cullen-Lancaster tenure over the last two years.

“It’s a fantastic challenge, and in the Aviva as well,” Cullen added.

“I believe tickets are going very, very well and a crowd of what, 50,000 people, and all those little things matter for us.

“Support for us has been a real point of difference for us in the last couple of seasons in trying to get us back to this point.

“There’s been a huge amount of working going on here in the last couple of seasons to get us to a situation where we’re in a game against Saracens, because they’re the team we’ve all been trying to chase.”

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