Leinster’s much-changed side urged to take their big chance against Benetton

THE DOOR HAS been left ajar, and Leo Cullen’s message is clear. 

All going well, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner will be back fit and in harness for Toulouse at the end of this month, but the Leinster head coach wants to be given further selection headaches for the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final. 

The season-ending injuries suffered by Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy has presented an opportunity for a number of players in the back row, and the next two weekends of Pro14 action serve as timely semi-final audition windows.

The race for semi-final selection: Tomane and Lowe both start tomorrow. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In making 13 changes from last weekend’s quarter-final defeat of Ulster, Cullen has retained just Scott Fardy and Luke McGrath in his starting XV for the visit of Benetton to the RDS tomorrow evening [KO 7.45pm, TG4/eir Sport].

Sean O’Brien remains the incumbent openside and leading candidate to step into the breach for that last four tie against Toulouse on Easter Sunday, but with the 32-year-old given time off this week, Max Deegan is handed the chance to stake his claim.

The 22-year-old starts in the number seven jersey alongside Josh Murphy at blindside and Caelan Doris at the back of the scrum, a combination Leinster have used to good effect in recent weeks during the Six Nations period.

A natural number eight, Deegan has impressed in the openside role this season and in addition to his tireless defensive work and poaching abilities, brings athleticism and physicality to the jersey. 

He has made three starts at seven this term, in the wins over Zebre, Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, but will face a stiffer assignment against Benetton’s Sebastian Negri and Abraham Steyn.

“We’ve used this selection over the course of the season,” Cullen says. “Josh at six gives us a good physical edge, gets through a lot of work for us. Between Max and Caelan, they’ve been playing this seven/eight role. Even though Max will be doing some of the work of the eight, he’ll wear seven. We didn’t have any seven-and-a-half jerseys and it’s too much work for Johnny O’Hagan [Leinster kitman] to do!

“Max and Caelan have both been excellent for us this year so those guys are young, pushing on through and getting better week-on-week. That’s important for them to realise that they’re building layers of experience all the time. It has been a good season for the two of them, they’ve got lots of minutes and learning all the time.

“The back row that started last weekend [Ruddock, O’Brien, Conan] have been managed for various different reasons and some of them will come back into the mix next week depending on what we go with for the Glasgow game.

“It’s a great chance for guys to lay down a marker and put their hands up and say ‘pick me, pick me for the team’ for the big games. That semi-final in a couple of weeks that everyone wants to play in. That’s the message.”

Josh Murphy is selected at six. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The performance of the back row unit will be of particular interest at the RDS, but so too the return to the side of Kiwi James Lowe, Noel Reid’s selection at out-half and whether Barry Daly and Fergus McFadden can prove their form and fitness to force their way into Cullen’s thoughts ahead of Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney. 

Lowe, who has struggled with a shoulder injury recently, missed the European quarter-final because of the ‘non-European player’ ruling but has featured just twice since his red card at Thomond Park at Christmas, and will be particularly keen to make an impact.

Ditto in Joe Tomane’s case, the Wallaby enduring a frustrating first season in Dublin, after hamstring surgery ruled him out for four months. He is selected in midfield alongside Conor O’Brien, and will want to show his worth to those Leinster supporters who remain unconvinced. 

“There’s different motivation now for the group,” Cullen continues. “We want to give a good account of ourselves at the RDS and hopefully we’ll have a good crowd here. And for the players, they all want to give a good account of themselves collectively as that allows them to perform better individually which gives them the opportunity to showcase their talents so they can actually get picked for some of the very big games coming up. There’s lots at stake for us.”

McGrath is retained at scrum-half and captains the province in the round 19 encounter, with Reid selected at 10 ahead of Ciaran Frawley, as Johnny Sexton remains sidelined and Ross Byrne is wrapped in cotton wool after his match-winning role at the Aviva last weekend. 

On Byrne’s fitness, Cullen said: “Ross isn’t too bad. A little bit of cramp and he had a small issue with his foot as well. We tried to manage him this week with Noel and Ciaran there as well. It’s a great chance for the two of them. Ciaran will hopefully feature as well. Ross is okay, he should be back next week.”

Up front, Jack McGrath starts at the end of the week his summer move to Ulster was confirmed, while James Tracy and Andrew Porter are promoted from the bench after strong cameos against Ulster.

Cullen speaking at today’s pre-match press conference. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We want to try and manage guys so we’re using the time to be able to conserve some energy for what we hope is a string of big games coming up as well,” Cullen adds.

“The group is competitive and it’s a great opportunity for a lot of our guys to play this weekend as well. Competition over the course of the season has been good and it’s put us in pretty good stead. A great chance for guys to play and showcase what they can do.”

The Leinster head coach is, however, wary of the threat the Italians will pose after they stunned the hosts at the province last season, securing a famous victory at the RDS.

“It’s going to be a bloody tough challenge as well because Treviso were very good here last year, they’ve been making really steady progress under Kieran Crowley and we’ve a huge amount of respect for what they’ve done.

“They’re making up the vast majority of the Italian team at the moment and yet they’re still able to make progress to where they are in our conference. We’re under no illusions, it will be a very tough game for us.” 

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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