By Brendan O’Brien
Leo Cullen insists that the team will always come before the occasion, having taken the decision to rest Jonathan Sexton for Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 interpro clash against fierce rivals Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
Sexton had started all three of Leinster’s previous games and, with two rounds of Heineken Champions Cup and a four-game November Test window to follow, it was well-flagged that the out-half would be given the weekend off here.
There will be 30 Ireland internationals on show in front of approximately 50,000 spectators this evening, but the absence of Sexton still made for the hottest topic of conversation when the home team’s matchday 23 was released yesterday.
It was suggested that spectators, at the ground and on TV, might feel shortchanged by the absence of a world-class player who is fit and who has played such a pivotal role for Leinster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.
Cullen, though, has a different mindset.
“Ultimately, I always do what’s best for the team,” said the Leinster head coach. “I am trying to think, how do I elaborate on that... you will do the best for what, in my opinion, the group demands. There are so many different variables at play now that weren’t there a couple of years ago.
Cullen added that there are more variables now than ever before.
Last season added a two-game mini-tour of South Africa into the mix early into a season that began on the back of a British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Also, the adoption of a conference system by the PRO14 has had the effect of increasing the importance of games — such as last week’s against conference rivals Connacht — while diluting the worth of a win against Munster, who reside in the opposite section.
“The conference dynamic, well, it is just a fact of life. It is different, but does it take away from this fixture? That’s a different question,” said Cullen.
Leinster also have the prospect of an opening European fixture against Wasps next Friday to factor into their considerations.
Munster have additional time to prepare for their trip to Exeter Chiefs and that has been reflected in their selection here.
Leinster are still well-armed, if not quite fully locked and loaded.
Sean O’Brien, who came on during the first-half of last week’s win away to Connacht, starts his first game since April. He wears the No8 in a back row that also features Rhys Ruddock and Dan Leavy. That trio’s battle with Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander promises to be epic.
It may not be Europe, but the bragging rights remain highly-prized. Leinster have largely enjoyed the upper hand in this rivalry through the last decade, but Cullen hasn’t forgot his year as assistant coach in 2014/15, when Munster taught them some harsh lessons.
“You don’t want your standards to slip at all, so we just want to continuously improve. My first year coaching here, jeepers, it was a tough old game for us. We were well and truly beaten here 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.”