wielding the axe
'We're trying to invest in all our players': Cullen makes big selection calls
Both Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath have been dropped for Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster.

LEO CULLEN WAS keen to downplay the significance of the omission of Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath from his Leinster side for tomorrow’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster, rather choosing to focus on the bigger picture.

But whatever way you look at it, or whatever way the Leinster head coach wants to dress it up to the media, the fact is that Kearney — Ireland’s everpresent fullback — has been dropped for Jordan Larmour and McGrath’s demotion to third-choice loosehead has been confirmed.

Rob Kearney Dan Sheridan / INPHO Kearney is on the bench tomorrow. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

While Johnny Sexton’s absence through ‘a leg niggle’ was the main talking point at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon, equally the selection of Larmour in the backfield and McGrath’s spectacular fall from grace are headline-grabbing.

Leinster will head into Saturday’s inter-pro showdown at a sold-out Aviva Stadium without three of their Lions, albeit for contrasting reasons, with Kearney — confirmed by Cullen as fully fit — at least making the bench for the clash with the northern province.

Opting for Larmour ahead of Kearney is a big call from Cullen. The 33-year-old has had an injury-disrupted season, featuring just twice for Leinster during the European pool games, but is a big-game player and one of the most consistent performers in blue and green. 

Larmour’s performance at 15 against France in the Six Nations certainly impressed Cullen, and the 21-year-old — who started all six pool outings — adds an extra dimension to Leinster’s attacking game in what is a fascinating selection with the World Cup just six months away.

“Rob is okay,” Cullen said this afternoon. “I don’t want to talk about individuals because that is not what this team is about.

This selection is always very difficult for us. You come off the pool stages and then the squad are away for a long time from January. Then we come back together 10 weeks later and you’re trying to make calls based on what you’ve seen. All across the team, we have really, really tight calls.

“We’ve used 55 players in the Pro14 and Europe this season and it’s a huge group and they’ve already got us to a Pro14 semi-final. Our philosophy is everyone needs to be ready to step in.

“You hear so many coaches complaining about injuries unravelling their team and we don’t want to use that as an excuse ever. We’re trying to invest in our players all the time and it’s something that we’ll continue to do. The group is very, very competitive. There are lots of tight calls.”

The Leinster head coach continued: “It’s very unfair of me to talk about one individual on that team because that’s not what we’re about. We’re a group that want to work hard together, form tight bonds.

Leo Cullen Dan Sheridan / INPHO Cullen speaking at the Aviva Stadium today. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“People miss out on big days because of injuries or whatever else and there are some very, very tight calls on a week-to-week basis that we try as coaches to explain to the players as best as possible.

“It’s very unfair of me to talk about one individual because we have all these battles across the team. But that’s not what this team is about. 

“This 23 who are named are representing the rest of that group and all the supporters as well. It’s difficult for us as coaches to talk about those individuals because ultimately it’s about all the group pushing each other hard so we’re in the best possible shape. As selectors then we have some difficult decisions to make.”

Cullen was then specifically asked about Larmour and why he has got the nod ahead of the more experienced Kearney.

“A number of things really,” he says. “You’re trying to weigh up what you see in the Six Nations. Jordan played against France here and I thought he did well in that game. The Toulouse game he played in round five, I’ve thought he’s gone okay in the games.

“He’s exciting at 15, Jordan. It’s just about getting the ball in a bit of space for some of the rest of the guys in the team. Because he’s dangerous, he’s a constant threat, when he has the ball. And yeah, we think he’s suited to the challenge of the type of game we think it might be.”

And what of McGrath? A standout performer for the Lions in New Zealand just two summers ago, the 29-year-old’s slide has been eye-opening. His proposed switch to Ulster at the end of the season may not have helped his selection cause, but McGrath is now behind Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne at international level and behind Healy and Ed Byrne at Leinster.

“We made some calls in round five and six,” Cullen continues. “Ed Byrne has been doing well and got the nod there, Cian Healy is in form and it’s just what we think will work.

Jack McGrath celebrates winning Gary Carr / INPHO McGrath has fallen out of favour. Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

“Jack is training hard, he came off the bench last week [against Edinburgh]. It’s a close call. It’s difficult because he had the injury at the start of the season, there’s a little bit of form over the season.

“And the period we had is disjointed, they don’t play much rugby and selection in this period is on a given day. Any other day we could do it differently.

“Ed stayed with Leinster [during the Six Nations period] and was able to play a lot of minutes so it was easier for him. But for other players who got pulled and dragged, it’s a little bit harder for them to showcase what they can do.”

McGrath finds himself in no man’s land then.

“It’s just the nature of the business we’re in,” his head coach adds. “Trying to invest in those young guys, bring them through and every year they’re a little bit older, hopefully wiser and a little bit better, they’re improving all the time.

“That’s the type of mindset in the group. Older guys need to understand their responsibility, how they facilitate some of the younger guys as well. That’s what we all have to buy into, it can be hard at times.

“But in terms of the discussions with players, you’ve just got to tell them that this is the way we think it is, this week. These are the areas that if you deliver in training or when you play next, it’s a different conversation for the next big game or whatever the next big game everyone is available for selection in.”

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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