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Dublin: 4°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Cullen 'looking at the broader picture' as O'Brien slots in at number eight

The 31-year-old is named in an exciting back row unit alongside Rhys Ruddock and Dan Leavy for Saturday’s clash with Munster.

LEO CULLEN ADMITS having Sean O’Brien back fit and available is ‘very much like having a new player’ as the Leinster back row prepares to make his first start in five months in Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 inter-pro against Munster.

O’Brien made his long-awaited injury comeback in last week’s defeat of Connacht in Galway, and has been named to start in the number eight position for tomorrow’s clash at the Aviva Stadium [KO 6pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport].

Sean O'Brien O'Brien at the Aviva Stadium this morning. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The 31-year-old came through his 50-odd minute cameo at the Sportsground reporting no ill effects despite his long lay-off with hip and shoulder injuries, having slotted in for the injured Rhys Ruddock at blindside flanker.

O’Brien spoke earlier in the week about his willingness to play anywhere in the back row having endured an injury-ravaged season last year, with Cullen deploying the Ireland international at the back of the scrum for Munster, with Ruddock and the fit-again Dan Leavy packing down either side.

The Carlow native’s selection at eight is an exciting one for both Leinster and indeed Ireland, with O’Brien — having returned in peak physical condition — offering a dynamic ball-carrying threat in addition to the work-rate and athleticism of Ruddock and Leavy.

With Jack Conan given this weekend off, Cullen explained picking O’Brien at number eight leads to the potential of him being a long-term option in that position, particularly with Leinster’s depth at openside and blindside.

“There’s definitely a little bit of that, so that’s going into some of the selections and you’re looking at the broader picture as well,” the Leinster head coach said.

“We didn’t expect him [O'Brien] to get through as much, Rhys took a bang early in the game last week and came off. Seanie came on for 55 minutes last week, got through it really well and did a lot of work.

“Rhys came through this week so he gets to play again and lead the team. Sean went well during the game last week, he’s such a strong voice, a strong, physical presence and it’s good to have him back.

“We’ve missed him for a long time, it’s very much like having a new player. He’s been there in the background, he hasn’t played a huge amount and we’re trying to get him up to speed again.

“Obviously Dan [Leavy] got that head knock in that first game after coming back [v Edinburgh], but he has come through everything okay now and is good to go.

“That’s the thing in terms of selection, we need to get guys up and firing, but it’s no bigger occasion than a close-to-sold-out Aviva Stadium so hopefully we’re ready to go.”

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Ruddock, who has shaken off that hip problem which forced him off against Connacht, added it is a big boost to have a player of O’Brien’s calibre back in the team.

“He has been awesome,” the flanker said. “As Leo said he has been working away in the background doing rehab and as a player peer group, we have got to see the hard work he has been putting in and how much it meant to him to get back so early in the season.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at this afternoon's pre-match press conference. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It has been kind of an inspiration to see him get back to full fitness. Obviously I would have liked to have got a little bit longer last week but, again, to see him come straight into it and play well, and now he gets a start.

“We’re all excited to have him in the team, he’s a big leader within the group.”

O’Brien’s return to the Leinster starting XV for Saturday’s round six showdown with their southern rivals is one of 11 changes Cullen has made to his side, with the European champions keeping a close eye on next week’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps.

Only Ruddock, Devin Toner, James Lowe and Rob Kearney are retained from last weekend, with Johnny Sexton, Scott Fardy, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose among those wrapped in cotton wool.

Still, Leinster’s side is stacked with quality and international experience with Kearney set to win his 200th appearance for the province, while Luke McGrath is in line to earn his 100th cap should he come off the bench. 

“It’s a tricky balance this time of year, there is a lot of different variables,” Cullen said of his team selection.

“We’d a very tough, physical game against Connacht last week, we’ve guys coming back at different stages and so we’re trying to fit it into an overall plan. With the game next week [against Wasps], how do we manage the group? Ultimately we’ve tried to pick a team that we think will be able to perform on the day and we hope is going to get the result we want as well.” 

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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