Leo Cullen has warned that Leinster cannot allow their upcoming South African trip to distract them from the business at hand tonight when they face Cardiff Blues at the RDS in the second round of the Guinness PRO14,
Leinster, along with Zebre, will act as guinea pigs when they make the first competitive visits by a European club to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth — they will make base in Cape Town and then Johannesburg — for a 12-day trip that starts on Tuesday.
“The guy who organises all of our travel, (operations manager) Ronan O’Donnell, he’s probably one of the longest serving members of staff that we have. He’s had a workload with it. All the travel, more often than not, has been seamless for the players and for the squad. He puts a huge amount of time into it,” Cullen explained. “He’s well on top of things.”
The reality is that the whole operation has been a major headache with schedules still being finalised this week as clubs and the competition organisers come to terms with the last-minute decision to welcome the Cheetahs and Southern Kings into the tournament.
The opening weekend didn’t bode well with the two franchises shipping 16 tries and a grand total of 99 points to Ulster and Scarlets and the hope is that improvement is swift as they get their feet under the table.
“They will be a different prospect at home,” said Cullen. “Anyone I have talked to has indicated that. We actually had (former Ireland forwards coach) Gert Smal in with us at training on Tuesday.
"That was the sort of message he delivered himself. I was talking to Rassie Erasmus at the launch of the tournament. He said they would be a different proposition (over there), particularly the Cheetahs when they play at altitude. I’m on Cardiff now and we need to make sure that we prepare properly leading into the game.”
Cullen has made four changes from the side that started its season with a comfortable win away to the Dragons with Rhys Ruddock making his first involvement and Devin Toner captaining from the second row where he makes his 200th provincial appearance.
Jordi Murphy will act as 24th man. Pulled from the game last weekend after jarring his knee in training, the back row has been given the all-clear by a specialist and has taken a full part in training this week.
As for the club’s British and Irish Lions contingent — Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath — none will return to action before the round five tie at home to Edinburgh.
Garry Ringrose, who summered in the USA and Japan with Ireland, will not feature for some time after that although Cullen had no further updates on a player recovering from shoulder surgery and initially expected to be absent through to December.
Cardiff have their own absentees as they travel to Dublin. Danny Wilson is missing 13 players through injury, among them former Munster and Ulster forward Nick Williams, but the Blues head coach has still made six changes after the home loss to Edinburgh last week.
R Kearney; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, I Nacewa, J Larmour; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Bent; D Toner, S Fardy; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan.
R Williams; A Cuthbert, G Smith, R Lee-Lo, T James; S Shingler, L Williams; R Gill, M Rees, K Assiratti, S Davies, D Welch, M Cook, J Turnbull, J Navidi.
A Brace (IRFU).
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.