LEO CULLEN SAYS Seán O’Brien is ‘just excited about playing’ again as he prepares to make his latest injury comeback in Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup clash against Wasps on Sunday afternoon.
O’Brien has endured an injury-plagued two years and after returning from hip and shoulder problems last October, suffered a broken arm during Ireland’s Autumn Test victory over Argentina.
O’Brien is on the Leinster bench for Wasps. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
The 31-year-old has worked hard alongside Leinster’s medical staff to get back to full fitness ahead of schedule and is named on the replacements bench for the Pool 1 encounter at the Ricoh Arena [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport].
O’Brien has played five games for the province this term and after being included in Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad earlier this week, will now have an opportunity to get valuable minutes under his belt.
“Seánie’s going well, he’s worked hard to get back,” Leo Cullen said at this afternoon’s pre-match press conference.
“And just the experience that he has, he gives us good coverage off the bench as well, he’s played six, seven and eight, which makes a big difference.
“He’s trained well, he’s so excited just about playing and is dying to get back. Hopefully, it all goes well for him.”
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The Leinster head coach continued: “It just makes him hungrier than ever now, I think, especially when you get on.
“He did well early season, he was involved in five or six games in a row and then was just incredibly unlucky to pick up a broken arm in a game.
“But he worked his way back from his other knocks, it was just a fresh injury. He’s been able to run away during the period he was off with his broken arm so he’s just hungry to get back involved and playing.
“Seánie is just one of those type of people who would rather play every week, the training can have a certain monotony to it but he’s someone who loves playing, loves performing and hopefully gets a good run this weekend.”
Cullen has made four changes in personnel to his starting XV for the round six game in Coventry, with the defending champions requiring a victory to rubber-stamp their home quarter-final.
Leinster will also have a top-two finish in their sights, which will give them the added bonus of home country advantage at the semi-final stage should they get that far.
Cullen speaking at today’s press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
It is a testament to the performance of Leinster’s back three against Toulouse last week that Cullen has kept faith with Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney, following confirmation that Rob Kearney was back in the selection picture this week.
Robbie Henshaw’s remarkable powers of recovery see him start in midfield alongside Garry Ringrose having been sidelined with a hamstring injury since November, while Jamison Gibson-Park deputises for the luckless Luke McGrath at scrum-half.
Again, Johnny Sexton and Dan Leavy were unavailable for selection through injury, but both are ‘making good progress.’
“I thought the guys did well last week,” Cullen said. “It’s a very competitive group at the moment and there’s a few different dynamics. Rob [Kearney] originally we thought was going to be okay last week and felt something during the week. He got through training this week okay, so there was just a little bit uncertainty at the start of the week. The guys did well at the weekend so deserved to get picked again, but it’s a different challenge this week.
“It has been a slightly longer week this week which has been good. It’s important that we prepare as well as possible. We have a couple of guys coming back into the group that came through towards the end of last week. It’s a very competitive group at the moment and it’s important we fight for everything we can.”
On Henshaw, who was originally a doubt for the start of the Six Nations but made excellent progress in his recovery, Cullen added: “Robbie trained all of last week and came through. He got a lot of confidence from that and trained well this week. He has formed a strong relationship with Garry over the last few seasons so he’s looking good, looking sharp.
The other two changes come in the pack where Jack McGrath returns to the starting loosehead position having missed out completely last week, while Cian Healy drops down to the bench.
Jack McGrath starts on Sunday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Devin Toner, meanwhile, has recovered from a rolled ankle and is back in the engine room alongside the undroppable James Ryan, with Scott Fardy — preferred to James Lowe for the second ‘non-European player’ berth — providing the cover on the bench.
“Cian I thought was excellent for starters and Ed [Byrne] did well when he came off the bench as well,” Cullen explained. “Just a slightly different change-up for us, Jack came through the Ulster game, he got through 50 minutes that day, we still thought that step up of level and in intensity for Toulouse…so the extra week training was going to be good for him.
“But with the challenge that Wasps have, I think he suits some of the threats that they have so that’s why we made the change. I think Cian will give us good change-up from the bench as well, and it sorts of gives him the chance to freshen up slightly as well.
“But the power that he can deliver off the bench is important for us later in the game.”
Having had to sit out the round five win over Toulouse, Toner admits there is pressure on the players coming back into the side to maintain the same standard this weekend as Leinster look to finish the job and top Pool 1.
“It’s an absolutely massive game,” the second row said. “Disappointing to miss out last week but to see how well the guys went, the onus is on us to come back in and to better that performance or keep that bar as high it is. There’s a lot of pressure on lads coming in to keep that standard.
“Wasps have nothing to lose coming out against us. With us, how we’ve gone last year and how we’ve been playing, we have a big target on our backs. Everyone loves coming up against us these days and it’s a great marker for them to put down a good performance against us.
“We’re obviously under no illusions of the strength of their squad, they’ve got strength everywhere, to be honest.”
Ahead of the final weekend of European pool games, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look at what each of the provinces can expect, and who impressed last weekend:
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