By Brendan O’Brien
Leinster’s defence of their Champions Cup title is set for an early boost with the expected returns from injury of an influential back row trio comprising of Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, and Dan Leavy.
And the return dates of all three stars will be good news to Ireland fans ahead of their November international duties which kick off with the game against Italy at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
News of O’Brien’s reappearnce on the paddock is a particular relief given ongoing injury issues last season which saw him sit out his club’s double-winning run and Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign.
O’Brien had only just returned from a hip injury when he damaged a shoulder away to Scarlets in March and he then failed to complete another comeback the following month at home to Benetton.
The player’s return would be a clear cause for celebration but the manner in which his return has been put back and aborted this past six months will invite caution until he gets a number of games under his belt.
And remains healthy.
“Yeah, well, he injured two different body parts then. A player like Sean, who has played a lot has a bit of mileage wear and tear built up... So, he was rehabbing back from a hip injury.
“Then he comes back and gets a shoulder injury that flares up from when I think he got a bang on the shoulder for the Lions and probably it was there rumbling away in the background and he gets another bang.
“He had to have a surgical intervention at that stage. He has a couple of issues going on, that’s just the nature of the game as well.
O’Brien wouldn’t be the first professional rugby player to return after a lenghty period of injury hell and there have been plenty of examples of others taking six months or a year out of the game voluntarily in an attempt to recharge the batteries.
It may be that this layoff pays off in the long run.
“Yeah, he’s fresh,” said Cullen. “Sean’s desperate to get back. He still contributes to meetings.
“He gets frustrated by the images, he’s a huge part of the squad, a huge part of the group.”
Van der Flier will come back into the fold after injuring his knee ligaments during Ireland’s first Six Nations game in Paris earlier this year while Leavy missed the last of Ireland’s three Tests on the successful summer tour with a sternum injury.
Fergus McFadden, injured in the Champions Cup semi-final win over Saracens at the Aviva Stadium, should be available in time for the new Guinness PRO14 campaign.
One man Cullen will have to plan without is Joey Carbery who will be wearing Munster red in the wake of his switch during the summer: made despite Leinster’s desperate attempts to keep him in Dublin.
The move caused a considerable stink when it was first mooted at the back end of the last season. Leinster were clearly unhappy at losing a player identified by Graham Henry two years ago as the man they should build their team around.
Cullen wasn’t eager to pick over any old sores, however.
“Ah, players come and go and we’re just trying to work on the environment here, all the coaching group that we have, and we hope that players want to stay here.
“There’s always different pressures that come on that and I think it’s unfair for me to comment specifically on Joey because he’s just one of a number of players that have come through the Leinster system and are now playing with other provinces.
“Tadhg Beirne has gone to Munster as well.
“You wish Tadhg well, you just hope they don’t come back and actually cause a lot of pain on a big day, as he did the previous year in the semi-final when Scarlets beat us in the RDS and Tadhg was a big contributor there.
“So we just need to try to focus on the group that we have and get excited about performing well for Leinster with this group that we do have.”