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Dublin: 9°C Friday 7 May 2021

Cullen confident reintegration of Ireland stars will be seamless in Leinster's European opener

Leinster begin their European campaign on Sunday.

Cullen is wary of the threat Wasps will bring to Dublin.
Cullen is wary of the threat Wasps will bring to Dublin.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WITH THE MARGINS as fine as they are, Leo Cullen admits he isn’t prepared to gamble on the fitness of three of his big guns as Leinster begin their European campaign on Sunday.

Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Ben Te’o have all been given an additional week to recover from their respective injuries with Cullen forced into a slight reshuffle ahead of the visit of Wasps.

Isa Nacewa will make his first European appearance for the province since 2013 with Noel Reid and Fergus McFadden forming a new look midfield partnership.

“It’s been really competitive since people came back from the World Cup, lads pushed hard during those first five games,” the Leinster coach said. “So we’ve had tough decisions for the start of the European campaign.

“Lukey [Fitzgerald] picked up that bang on his neck in Treviso so he’s close, we just didn’t want to push him and it was wise not to risk him this week.

“Ben Te’o picked up an injury when he came off the bench against Scarlets so a little bit too soon for him and Rob Kearney came off in that game also.

“We had thought at the start of the week that they’d make it with the Sunday kick-off but it probably just a bit too close to risk them.”

In all, Cullen has made nine changes to his XV from the one that defeated Scarlets in the Pro12 last week.

In the half-backs, Eoin Reddan gets the nod to start at scrum-half against the club with whom he won a Heineken Cup in 2007 while Johnny Sexton makes his first European start since returning from Racing.

It says a great deal about the depth of squad available to Cullen that even when he doesn’t have a full deck to choose from, the options remain plentiful.

Jonathan Sexton speaking with Leo Cullen Sexton will make his first start back at the RDS on Sunday. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“To be in with a chance of, I guess, being competitive late in the year you can’t be reliant on certain players. When we played Wasps in the first game last year, we were missing eight to 10 guys but it’s part and parcel of the game.

“We’re not as badly affected but you know you’re always going to be down a few bodies but it’s important to have that depth.

“It was something we were very conscious of during the World Cup, to give those guys a chance. A lot of young guys came in, guys who had been playing club up until that point, short-term deals, those guys have added pretty significantly to the environment here and certainly gave us a few more options to work with as well.”

Cullen is confident Kearney and Fitzgerald, as well as Rhys Ruddock, will be available for selection for next week’s trip to Bath but admits reintegrating the players who have been away from the set-up has been an important process.

“We used two separate XVs against Treviso and Scarlets,” he explained. “It was important to get a look at a few players and reintegrate them. The guys who came back in because you want a bit of continuity from what’s been done in the previous three months.

“Those national guys are away and they’re just in a slightly different way of thinking, even though they know the systems here, it’s just that little bit different here.

“We reintegrated seven or eight each week and I thought it worked reasonably okay.”

Those returning to blue have had the chance to ease their way back in the last two weeks but the serious business begins this weekend.

Cullen hopes they’ll click into gear straight away because there isn’t much room for error.

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Ryan Bailey

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