Leo Cullen says players need to be managed carefully

Beat Treviso, score four tries and book a home Guinness PRO12 semi-final.

It’s a straightforward proposition for Leinster at the RDS this afternoon, but the journey to this point has been long and complicated for rookie head coach Leo Cullen who has had to learn on the hoof through a World Cup season which all too often weakened his hand.

The toll is apparent in the fact that the number of Irish internationals absent from the 23 for this encounter is just shy of double figures and most of those are injury-related - from Ian Madigan who has a tweaked knee to Mike McCarthy who was stood down with concussion weeks ago.

Madigan should be back in time for the play-offs, while Josh van der Flier will have an assessment on his injured ankle after the weekend. Luke Fitzgerald misses out because of a medial ligament issue that is, thankfully, unrelated to his last one.

Then there are the cases of Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy.

Both forwards have struggled through extended periods of injury all campaign. Some have been connected, others not so, but the consensus that perhaps both men could do with some sort of extended leave of absence from the game has been growing.

Cullen confirmed yesterday that O’Brien has suffered a setback in his rehab while Healy is being “managed” and the theory that a sabbatical – from playing and training – might be an antidote gained currency with Alex Corbisiero’s story this week.

The England prop decided to take time out from the game earlier this year after a decade of professional rugby in order to give his body and mind a break and he outlined some of the pros and cons to that decision when he spoke to an English newspaper again a few days back.

Corbisiero touched on the pressures on players, medical staff and coaches to play when less than fully fit, and of the macho culture that still frowns on those who don’t play through the pain barrier, and Cullen accepted that such issues are prevalent.

Cullen also spoke of the short-term focus that is an inevitable part of a sport that punches out results on a weekly basis, but he was effusive in his praise for the medical staff and the player welfare culture in Leinster and Ireland when asked about the possibility of players being stood down.

“We make those choices all the time, definitely,” he said. “You see someone like a Jonny Wilkinson, achieves amazing things in the early part of his career, then he’s in a block of four to five years when it seemed like he was constantly in that injury cycle.

“He makes a clean break, moves to the South of France and, suddenly, he’s in that period when he’s in the rhythm of playing. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

“You have an eye on the bigger picture as well, especially in Ireland, because we have a smaller pool of resources than they would have in other countries. We need to manage those resources very carefully.

“We’re very fortunate here that we have some of the best medics around.”

Most coaches could trot out those sort of lines, but Cullen went into greater detail to make his point, explaining how the decision had been made to excuse a number of internationals for the game against Edinburgh last month on the basis of their workloads to that point.

They were decisions which he suggested also played a part in their 30-6 defeat in Belfast last weekend. “Were those guys shy of the game time and just that little but off? Sometimes that’s all it takes. With the whole scheme of the season, that’s a call that we made.”

None of which should make any difference today. Treviso may have upset a much-changed Connacht in Italy last weekend, but Leinster field eleven internationals in their XV here, as well as three others destined to feature in the Test arena. The season’s real toll won’t be any way apparent until at least a fortnight’s time.


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