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O'Brien return 'a great boost' but McGrath remains 'touch and go' for Scarlets

Leo Cullen has again rotated his squad for tomorrow’s visit of Benetton with all eyes on the Champions Cup semi-final.

McGrath is out of a protective boot but yet to return to training.
McGrath is out of a protective boot but yet to return to training.
Image: Getty Images

WHILE THE RETURN of Sean O’Brien and Jordan Larmour appears to have put Leinster in good shape a week out from their Champions Cup semi-final, the ankle injury troubling Luke McGrath may still provide the province with a significant selection headache.

Both O’Brien and Larmour make their respective returns in tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 clash with Benetton Treviso to provide Leo Cullen with a welcome fillip ahead of the Scarlets, but the fitness of scrum-half McGrath is a major concern.

The Ireland international has not yet reintegrated back into training since suffering the injury during the final stages of Leinster’s quarter-final win over Saracens on 1 April, and Cullen now admits McGrath is ‘touch and go’ for next week.

Leinster were never going to risk the former St Michael’s man against the Italians tomorrow but his availability for next Saturday’s European showdown brings a wider impact for Cullen’s team-sheet.

As has been well documented at this stage, McGrath remains the key piece in the two-from-three Antipodean selection ruling, and his absence would likely force Cullen to leave Kiwi winger James Lowe from his squad with Jamison Gibson-Park needed at scrum-half and Scott Fardy indispensable in the pack.

“Making steady progress, he hasn’t been reintegrated into rugby training yet but hopefully the start of next week,” Cullen said this afternoon.

“We’ll see how he is, he hasn’t been on the pitch as of yet so he’s touch and go for next week.”

While McGrath’s ankle is no longer in a protective boot, he is running out of time to get back on the field and prove his fitness, with the importance of his presence not only magnified by the obscure law, but by his consistently excellent form over the last two seasons.

The good news, however, is that O’Brien will make his much-anticipated return against Benetton at the RDS tomorrow [KO 7.35pm, TG4] after shaking off the shoulder injury he sustained 27 minutes into his comeback game against Scarlets last month.

Bryan Byrne and Sean O'Brien O'Brien is back for just his second appearance since December. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The Ireland flanker has endured an injury-plagued season, playing just 303 minutes for his province so far and missing the entire Six Nations campaign, but having him back on deck is a big boost for Leinster as they continue to compete on two fronts.

“Sean has worked incredibly hard to get back so it’s good to see him back involved,” Cullen continued.

“He’s been a little bit unlucky over the last couple of weeks. Worked hard to get back originally from his hip to play against Scarlets and then got the bang on his shoulder in that game. It took a little bit longer than we all would have liked but he’s in good spirits now, good to see him back out there.”

O’Brien starts at openside in a back row unit containing Jordi Murphy and Max Deegan, who was man of the match last week, and if the 31-year-old can come through unscathed, Cullen will be presented with a selection dilemma ahead of Scarlets.

Both Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan are unlikely to return in time from their respective injuries, but regardless of how O’Brien goes against Benetton, the temptation will be to stick with the combination of Fardy, Dan Leavy and Murphy which worked so well against Saracens in the quarter.

Either way, Cullen has no doubts O’Brien will hit the ground running tomorrow evening as he looks to get valuable minutes under his belt.

“Seanie has come back from injuries in the past, it’s just part and parcel of the game,” the head coach continued. “All the players have to be able to deal with that, just making sure they focus all their mental energy on delivering a performance for the team and the role they have within that.

“Seanie has so much experience and he’s come back on many occasions in the past. He’s trained well the last couple of weeks and he brings great presence and voice to the group. He’s a great boost back to have back at this stage of the season.”

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at this afternoon's pre-match press conference at the RDS. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Brien’s return to the starting XV is one of 11 changes in personnel Cullen has made from last week’s win over Zebre, with the likes of Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden, Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter all coming back in after having last week off.

While Cullen has juggled his resources over this two-game Pro14 block and looked to strike a balance between maintaining freshness and keeping players sharp, the Leinster management have also wrapped key personnel up in cotton wool.

Johnny Sexton, James Ryan, Rob Kearney, Scott Fardy, Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa aren’t involved again tomorrow having had the last fortnight to rest up either side of the quarter and semi-final ties.

Cullen added: “It is a bit of a balance. It’s again trying to get that balance of making sure guys are fresh and that guys have the required game-time going into some of the big games, the knock-out games.

“We think we’ve a strong line-up again this week, there was mixed feelings after the Zebre performance. We lacked a bit of energy and that’s one of the things we talked about this week, it’s a very different group and hopefully there’s a lot of energy.

“I think we’ll need it because Treviso present plenty of challenges.”

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Scarlets make wholesale changes with one eye on Leinster – and it could be bad news for Ulster

O’Brien and Larmour back to start for Leinster in huge boost ahead of Scarlets

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