Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Cullen’s in seventh heaven after Six Nations return

When Leo Cullen runs out onto the Croke Park pitch tomorrow afternoon he can be forgiven for treating the occasion with the anticipation normally reserved for an international debut.

The 32-year-old has 20 caps, the most recent won last November against Fiji, but it has been a remarkable seven years since Cullen last featured in the 6 Nations and last started a competitive match for Ireland.

That was when Ronan O'Gara's drop goal saw off the Welsh in the Millennium Stadium and kept Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland on course for the 2003 Grand Slam (which England would deny them a week later at Lansdowne Road, via a red carpet stand-off).

While this lengthy 6 Nations hiatus might suggests Cullen breaking a mirror at the post-match function (seven years bad luck), the actual reason behind his long wait was the man who replaced Cullen in Cardiff.

Donncha O'Callaghan won his first cap off the bench that afternoon and has gone to amass 58 Ireland caps as twin totem with Paul O’Connell. However, once the Corkman was ruled out of tomorrow's 6 Nations opener against Italy, Cullen's call-up was a formality.

His performances for Leinster since rejoining his native province from Leicester for the 2007/08 season have propelled him right back up the pecking order and his captaincy has given Michael Cheika's men an on-field direction that drove them to last year's Heineken Cup title and eased the pressure on Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll.

Although O'Callaghan's knee injury is far from ideal with the critical French examination in Paris looming around the corner but the Ireland management team are delighted to have a replacement of Cullen's experience and ability ready to step in.

Forwards coach Gert Smal said the late change has not affected preparations unduly as O'Callaghan's knee niggle over the past two weeks meant Cullen was slotting into the second row during training sessions.

“This is why it's so important to build a squad so you have players who can fill in quite easily,” said Smal. “I'm not worried about it, I'm more excited to see what we have. Leo's been around a long time and it's a great opportunity for him and a combination that can work well, Paul and Leo give you a great amount of flexibility at lineout time.”

The Italians go into this meeting with the Grand Slam champions as overwhelming underdogs, trying to achieve a first 6 Nations win over Ireland. They have identified the scrum as one area where they can gain an advantage and bring a powerful front-row to Dublin, spear-headed by the renowned scrummaging prowess of Martin Castrogiovanni at tight-head.

Smal has been putting his charges through rigorous live scrummaging sessions in preparation and says the Irish are not intimidated by the prospect of packing down against the scrum that destroyed the All Blacks at the San Siro last November.

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