Cullen glad to have the ace to play

Leo Cullen could have landed on any number of superlatives to describe Jonathan Sexton as he stood in departures at Dublin Airport yesterday deliberating on the out-half’s return for this Champions Cup engagement in Glasgow.

Cullen glad to have the ace to play

That he reached first for ‘experienced’ was probably no coincidence.

“It’s great to have Johnny back,” the Leinster head coach explained. “The experience that he has is fantastic and he has already had a couple of games where he has been key, in terms of the game against Edinburgh at home and the game against Munster as well.”

Sexton is world-class: dependable, demanding and an excellent place kicker and tactician. But it is the leadership and on-field knowledge he brings back to the field after sitting out last week’s opening pool win over Montpellier that may be of most value today.

It’s six months since the province let slip a European final berth with a 27-22 defeat to Clermont Auvergne in France, thanks in large part to a turgid start that saw them trail 15-0 and a handful of small but significant errors that helped scupper the comeback.

Another semi-final was lost under a month later when the Scarlets sacked the RDS in the PRO12 play-offs, confirming the suspicion that a squad replete with youth still had much to learn on harder pitches and less forgiving stages.

“We’ve a very young squad,” the 31-year-old said after the Euro exit. “There are only a couple of old heads left, guys like Isa (Nacewa) and myself. We don’t have many more days left and we have got to urge these young players that you don’t get many chances at it. You’ve got to take every one like it’s your last one and that’s what it feels like.”

Today will tell us more about exactly where this Leinster side is so it was no surprise yesterday that Cullen had opted to name a team with six changes and one which is infinitely more experienced around the park for it.

Only one of the half-dozen switches, Noel Reid for Nacewa, has resulted in a player with less experience taking over from a more grizzled colleague and that has been forced upon Cullen due to the captain’s absence through ankle surgery.

It may be six weeks before the versatile Kiwi is back while the news on Sean O’Brien is that he returned to training late this week but not early enough to be considered. Even with that, the dependence on nous here is evident. Fergus McFadden replaces Adam Byrne on the wing and in the process takes the callow look off the back three. Sean Cronin steps in for James Tracy and even Cian Healy for Jack McGrath fits that same bill.

McGrath’s station on the bench says a lot for Leinster’s reserves while the selection of Healy at loosehead speaks volumes for a player who is slowly but surely returning to the sort of form that was first interrupted by injury on tour with the Lions back in 2013.

“We’re blessed to have that level of experience,” said Cullen, returning to the same theme. “It is a very competitive group at the moment and Cian and Sean Cronin have both been pushing hard.

“The other guys, Jack, James Tracy and even Michael Bent as well, they will provide big impact for us later in the game as well. With those front row guys you are always managing them all the time. It’ll be important that they are all contributing over the eighty minutes.” There’s not a massive amount of scope for improvement from last term.

For Leinster now it is more a case of tweaking the odd thing and looking for another nudge forward again from a new source. The display by James Ryan, earning only his second cap in the bonus-point win against Montpellier last week as a late call-up, is a perfect example of that.

Ross Byrne, too, stepped into the breach admirably when Sexton was unavailable with a dead leg and the visitors will still have no less than eleven players with less than 60 Leinster caps to their name among their number in Scotstoun today.

Take away Scott Fardy, back after the birth of a child last week, and Jamison Gibson-Park from that total and it still amounts to a collective boasting more than a few players yet to emerge from their apprenticeship at this rarified level.

Joey Carbery, for one, still has just the five European run-outs to his name.

Glasgow make for a dangerous foe on their fast 4G pitch. Add in the Scottish side’s opening day loss to Exeter and their reduced margin for error and they should prove to be an exacting measure of just where Leinster are at.

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