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Monday 1 May 2017

Cullen can tune-up ahead of French mission

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen during squad training in Belfield
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen during squad training in Belfield
Leinster’s Mick Kearney with senior coach Stuart Lancaster

Leo Cullen is right to rest some of his key players for the PRO12 derby clash with Connacht before an all-important trip to Lyon next weekend to take on French heavyweights Clermont in the European Champions Cup.

Cullen and his team have earned that luxury. Last weekend against the Ospreys, despite a tight finish that perhaps should have gone the hosts' way, Leinster managed an away win without some of their big stars like Jonny Sexton. That win gives Cullen a chance to continue his rotation policy and it also gives some of the Leinster fringe players a chance to push for selection in Europe.

For the Connacht game, Cullen's revolving-door selection policy again sees some big Leinster names missing, most noticeably former Connacht star Robbie Henshaw. Henshaw is probably a little relieved he does not have to run out against his old mates in the Sportsground. It's a difficult one for a play er. Some can't wait to play against their former team-mates, especially if they were let go, they want to show the former coach and supporters that they made a huge mistake.

Other players who left on good terms tend to feel a little uneasy. Henshaw has an excellent reputation in Connacht and for most people, while there was serious disappointment about his move to Leinster, there was no ill feeling.

Henshaw was just a young player trying to enhance his career. His move to Dublin has already paid dividends on both a national and international front and his almost symbiotic relationship with fellow Leinster centre Gary Ringrose is now one of the most exciting in world rugby.

Who would bet against both these young players teaming up for the Lions in New Zealand this summer? It helps Joe Schmdit that players can form telepathic combinations at club level that they can can transfer to the Irish jersey.

The big difference for Leinster this weekend is that, unlike Clermont in the French Top 14, Leinster have a large points cushion to play with at the top of the Pro 12. They are nine points clear of the Ospreys in third place and that window allows Cullen to rest some players for next weekend's match in France.

Conversely, French club rugby is notoriously tough and the sugar daddy owners of the French clubs often demand that players play week in week out.

The domestic title is crucial in France, and often supersedes European competition. Clermont's shock home loss to Brive last weekend will heap even more pressure on them to perform away to struggling Grenoble this weekend, and that just cranks up the added chance of fatigue and injury.

Cullen will have close to a full and fit side to select from next week, regardless of what happens this weekend. It's a perfect place to be. His players will be fresh and raring to go.

Humble

Cullen has always struck me as a humble, team-first man. Well respected as a captain in his time with Leicester and then Leinster, Cullen did not get to hold those positions lightly. T hey were bestowed on him by the respect he had from the players around him. He may never have been the star attraction but there was no better man to have at the coal face, and no better man to get the best out of his team.

Cullen's transition from captain to coach was a lot quicker than even he had probably anticipated but given the chance, this was a role that he had to take.

His first year was extremely tough but Cullen never appeared to panic, even when presented with a string of high-profile injuries and defections across the pond.

Some early losses must have had him wondering if he was out of his depth, especially after an early exit from Europe, and then a demoralising loss to Connacht in the Pro 12 final.

But Cullen's greatest asset has been his resilience and his ability to persevere and listen. Getting All Black World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry over as a short-term consultant was a master stroke, especially when it is rumoured that Henry pushed the talents of a young Joey Carbery.

Then another Leinster masterstroke in the appointment of former England coach Stuart Lancaster after the untimely withdraw of former defence coach Kurt McQuilkan.

Lancaster, rather than bemoan the fact that he had been let go by England, rolled up his sleeves and took a backseat role under Cullen in Ireland. It must have been hard for the proud Englishman but under Cullen, I should imagine it was made a lot easier.

Like Cullen, Lancaster is a man who loves the game first, and he appreciates that Leinster has given him the chance to resurrect a career that was in danger of ending far too soon.

A win in Europe or even a place in the final would put both these coaches back where they deserve to be.

Whatever happens this season, it has already been a success in terms of introducing talent and consistency of performance.

But you get the feeling that Cullen, Lancaster and Leinster want something tangible for their hard work. They are inches away.

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