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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 20 January, 2020

Touch of déjà vu for Cullen as Sexton knock opens door for Ross Byrne

The head coach hopes to see Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Rory O’Loughlin fit to feature against Glasgow next weekend.

LEO CULLEN FELT a touch of déjà vu this afternoon after announcing his side to begin tomorrow’s Champions Cup opener against Montpellier (1pm) in the RDS.

With Jonathan Sexton unable to shake off a dead leg and take a full part in training this week, the head coach has placed his faith 22-year-old Ross Byrne at out-half while Joey Carbery continues to use his talents as a fullback.

Johnny Sexton Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Rewind 12 months and it was the same story when the eastern province kicked off against Castres. Before Carbery was thrust onto the international scene in Chicago, he was handed the reins for Leinster’s opener at home to Castres with Sexton sidelined.

“It’s funny. It’s almost the exact same as this time last year,” says Cullen, “I was sitting in this press conference and Joey was coming in for his first start. He had played a number of the games early.”

The head coach goes on to point out that Byrne has played in a prominent role in the young season so far, starting the opening four matches and playing a part off the bench in the remainder. So he’s infinitely more ready for his second European start than he was when injury to Carbery in Northampton brought about Byrne’s Champions Cup debut just a few short December days after he was registered for the tournament.

Ross Byrne Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He’s built up a lot of experience,” says Cullen,  “He’s been comfortable running the team. It’s important we invest that time in players. It is another big step for Ross, but he’s very ambitious himself. He wants to push on and get better and we’re seeing that gradual improvement all the time.”

Another man who burst onto the scene in last season’s campaign was Rory O’Loughlin. And while Cullen was asked early questions about the fitness of Sexton and Sean O’Brien specifically, the head coach notably kept the two-try hero of last week’s win over Munster in the same bracket.

“Johnny and Rory O’Loughlin came through the (Munster) game okay, but flagged in with some stiffness and dead legs and couldn’t train properly this week. We made a call reasonably early.

“Seanie was a little bit slower than we expected on his calf, Isa (Nacewa) on the other hand, made it through.”

“You can always push things along, but we’re doing what we think is best for the team.

We’ll get those guys checked again and hopefully they’ll be okay to come in next week. It’s important when you play in these high intensity games you’re able to prepare as well as possible and when guys don’t play in the early part of the week it becomes difficult.”

Of course, Montpellier are without their own world class 10 as Aaron Cruden has reportedly torn a quad muscle that will sideline him for ‘several weeks’. That undoubtedly eases Leinster’s defensive headaches, but with Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn either side of him, Cullen has seen enough of Vern Cotter’s second choice to remain relatively wary.

“I watched Thomas Darmon in their game against Castres. He’s led their team away from home and they beat Castres away, so we know how much of a challenge that is.”

It’s not the out-half match-up that was billed, but the home side have probably come out looking stronger after the pull-outs.

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Sean Farrell

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