AS SOON AS Johnny Sexton’s name was confirmed on the Leinster team-sheet for Galway last week, it became increasingly unlikely that he would be involved for a fourth straight game tonight, and so he will instead rest up in the sanctuary of the stands.
While the prospect of the Leinster captain going toe-to-toe with his young apprentice, Joey Carbery, at the Aviva Stadium was a compelling one, the reality was always going to be different.
Sexton’s earlier-than-expected seasonal reappearance in the round three clash against Dragons meant another start against Munster would see him playing six matches in succession, on the presumption he will start both of the European fixtures against Wasps and Toulouse.
Something had to give, and with the Heineken Champions Cup coming into sharp focus, Sexton was due a rest.
The Ireland out-half played 65 minutes in that bonus-point win over Dragons, before clocking up another 66 minutes against Edinburgh and then 75 minutes at the Sportsground seven days ago.
“Ultimately, I always do what’s best for the team,” Leo Cullen said of his decision to give Sexton the weekend off, as Leinster go into battle with their southern rivals in the second of back-to-back Guinness Pro14 inter-pros later.
The Leinster head coach has made 11 changes for tonight’s round six clash, opting to maintain freshness among some of his key resources, with Sexton one of five front-line players dropping out having featured in three games on the trot.
Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour are the others told to put their feet up and take it easy, while Jack Conan is also rotated out of the matchday squad.
“You will do the best for what, in my opinion, the group demands,” Cullen continued.
“There are so many different variables at play now that weren’t there a couple of years ago. We had a big game against Edinburgh, a big game against Connacht.
“Then, you are trying to manage the group, making different assessments on guys. Some guys picked up bangs and knocks along the way. We’re constantly dealing with those issues.
“That’s why we want to have a competitive group because over the course of the season, it does take its toll.
“We want to be able to manage guys. We want to be able to make sure that every week the team we put out is able to give everything of themselves to try and get us the result we all want.
“There’s a lot of factors at play.”
Leo Cullen speaking yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
One of those factors is the six-day turnaround facing Leinster as they must quickly turn their attention to the opening Pool 1 fixture, as the province begin their Champions Cup title defence under Friday night lights.
“It’s definitely a consideration, for sure,” Cullen adds.
There is also the fact Munster aren’t in the same Pro14 conference, meaning the result –notwithstanding the provincial bragging rights — doesn’t carry the same bearing on the overall standings as it used to under the old one-conference structure.
“I don’t think it necessarily takes away from the fixture but the reality is the conference set-up does change the dynamic,” he admits.
“Because if you think the teams in our conference, when we play against those teams, the win or loss has a bigger bearing than it does when you play teams from the other conference.
In further explaining his selection, Cullen said the decision to rest certain players and pick others has been carefully considered on the back of training ground observations, and the implementation of a particular game plan for the challenge of facing a fully-loaded Munster side.
In a nutshell, Cullen’s team selection has been complicated by the complexity of player management at a crucial juncture in the season, with Europe and Ireland’s November Tests arriving on the horizon.
There are a lot of moving parts.
“In terms of the fixture, we’ve picked a team that we want to go after certain areas because even though all the decisions we make might not necessarily make sense to the wider public, for us they make sense because we see the guys training on a week-to-week basis and we know what they can deliver in certain areas,” the head coach stressed.
“And there are certain focus areas we will have on any given week as well, where we think we have a bit more knowledge on, while some people might just see the names of the teams and say ‘oh maybe that doesn’t make much sense’ but we hope it does to us.”
Of the players not involved tonight, Larmour is carrying a hip knock he sustained during the round five win over Connacht and, according to Cullen, was ‘struggling a little bit this week’ while Leinster felt they could rest Furlong given Michael Bent’s scrummaging form.
“We feel that Benty is the person to deal with the threat of the Munster scrum, because Benty has been going very well,” Cullen explained.
“He played against Edinburgh and you could see the damage he did to the Edinburgh scrum and we’d be hopeful for more of the same [against Munster].
Rhys Ruddock captains Leinster tonight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
On Sexton, Cullen reported the Leinster captain is in good physical condition after clocking up 206 minutes of early-season game time in recent weeks.
“It’s important that it’s not just the here and now. We’re conscious of what’s coming up and what’s around the corner, and building that depth and having that trust in players that we see every day.
“We put them in a training environment that tests them and they get challenged by very good players, so that by the time they actually get out on the pitch they’ve been through an uncomfortable, testing environment.”
All the while, however, the primary focus remains on picking up a fourth straight Pro14 victory, and further underlining their dominance of this fixture in recent times, having won six of the last seven meetings between the provincial rivals.
Furthermore, Leinster’s only loss in their last eight inter-pro fixtures was their chastening defeat to Connacht in Galway at the end of last season, and Cullen has urged his players to build ‘positive momentum’ ahead of a crucial block of fixtures.
“You don’t want your standards to slip at all so we just want to continuously improve,” the former second row added.
“My first year coaching here, jeepers, it was a tough old game for us. We were well and truly beaten here [October 2014] and down in Thomond. We lost home and away that year, which was a tough one for me to try and get my head around.
“It is important that we get the fundamentals of our game right because that is where Munster will test us out. There is a slightly different attacking dynamic that they have now, which is new, and we try to prepare accordingly for that.
“Every game throws up something that you may not have foreseen or prepared for so for us it’s about trying to get all our bits right which will give us some positive momentum going into two huge European games after it.”
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud