Rhys Ruddock and Seán Cronin have emerged as serious doubts for Leinster’s Champions Cup final next month.
Winger Adam Byrne was yesterday ruled out for the season with a quad injury, but coach Leo Cullen will be more anxious over the possible loss of two players who have started seven and eight of the province’s European eight games this season.
Ruddock was named in the starting XV for Sunday’s semi-final against Toulouse, but was withdrawn late on after complaining of ‘feeling unwell’ during the captain’s run on Saturday. Little was said about the vice-captain but in yesterday’s weekly media update, Leinster announced the player had “re-entered the graduated return to play protocols”.
John Fogarty, the Leinster scrum coach, explained that the back row forward had not fully recovered from a collision in the quarter-final against Ulster late last month.
“There was an original head knock against Ulster and he wasn’t feeling quite right and the lads are unbelievably strict with all that stuff,” Fogarty said.
“When he said he wasn’t feeling great, not feeling right, with the type of game that it was, you couldn’t put him out in it.
Fogarty continued: “He’s not someone who has had a huge amount of head knocks. It’s going to affect people in different ways, he’s not feeling quite right. He’ll hopefully get himself right. This next few weeks are going to be epic.”
Cronin, meanwhile, lasted just 34 minutes in Sunday’s semi-final win over Toulouse, before being removed with a calf injury. Sunday was his 15th straight start in the Champions Cup, on his 170th Leinster appearance but he now faces an anxious wait to see if he can return in time for the Saracens game in 18 days.
“He’s being assessed, we’ll see how it goes,” Fogarty said. “He’s a pretty important person, he’s out for this week and then we’ve a prep week and then we play [Saracens]. It’s important that he gets back but we’re not quite sure yet.
“We need as many as we can fit and healthy. It puts us under a little bit of pressure to get them back on the field, to train them up.
“I thought that some of the guys that came back in the semi-final did an unbelievable job. Like Johnny Sexton, when he’s back and he’s 100 per cent, it’s just an amazing thing to watch. He led us the whole week and was such a huge influence for us in the game as well.
“Someone like him had his bits to get fixed, got himself right and then goes out and trains during the week and plays and did a great job.
Sexton turned in a vintage display against Toulouse, but Leinster survived without the out half in the quarter-final win over Ulster, when Ross Byrne stepped in at late notice.
The 24-year-old — who was still only 23 when he kicked the winning penalty against Ulster last month —has become a key squad member for the reigning champions, as Fogarty explains.
“We played against Toulouse in a semi-final [in 2010] and Johnny didn’t start,” Fogarty said.
“There was an effect on the players, the whole playing group.
“But if Johnny is not there now, Ross is there; he gives confidence to everyone, we know what game he will play.
“Getting to semi-finals, finals, winning competitions... you have to have a squad and it is going to be massively tested.
“We are very lucky to have Ross in this squad. Like I said when Johnny is unavailable there is not this anxiety in the coaching or playing group.
“That’s what Ross brings mentally and in the way he plays the game. He is very, very capable.”
Byrne is just two caps away from 70 in the Leinster shirt, a tally far higher than Sexton had at the same age. He saw off the challenge from Joey Carbery last season, allowing him to enjoy the spotlight against Ulster — his first appearance in the knockout stages.
Comfortable is one word, confident another. Laid back to the point of horizontal is another way to describe Byrne. Witness his thoughts on the late, late penalty from the touchline to qualify for the semi-final — with a touch of cramp thrown in for drama. I was thinking ‘just get the kick’ really, get the kick and come off,” he smiled. “I had to get that one after missing two earlier in the game. It was just a case of kick and wait for the cramp to come — just hit it and hope it goes over.”