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Leinster under pressure to give power-packed display

 

Battle ready: Rob Kearney and Rhys Ruddock train at the Aviva yesterday
Battle ready: Rob Kearney and Rhys Ruddock train at the Aviva yesterday

By Tony Ward

Sometimes selection is not about the risks you take but the risks you don't. When playing safe is more dangerous than the alternative.

It helps when the man holding the cards knows that he has most of the best ones.

Neither Leinster nor Ulster are in the rudest of physical health but only one of them can contemplate fully absorbing the pain.

A mentally and physically bruising international window closed the door on the possibility of several stars being able to strut their stuff at the Aviva Stadium this evening.

Leo Cullen's supreme comfort was knowing he also had the luxury to turn the key and exclude a couple more should he so wish.

One of them, a 2017 British & Irish Lion in Jack McGrath, doesn't even make the bench, which is why his move to the opposition seems likely to be accelerated within the month.

Already denied a motley crew of the crocked variety from Irish camp - from Josh van der Flier to Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Sexton - that Leinster could also afford to omit McGrath and Rob Kearney (not to mention the wondrous skills of James Lowe!) reflects the chasm between today's Champions Cup combatants.

"We hopefully have some big games to come," said Cullen, as he tentatively suggested Sexton was okay despite his latest gnarly niggle.

They have bigger games to come, too; that might be a more accurate summation. Sexton, who hasn't worn blue this year, can wait.

Regardless, Cullen has laid down a marker to his squad in perhaps a manner Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff failed to consistently manage during their inconsistent Six Nations campaign.

Only form for his club counts. Or, more accurately, only current form.

Hence Rob Kearney is culled, his past mastery at this level counting for little; Jordan Larmour, the only bright spot of a dreary day in Cardiff, gets the chance that many thought he should have had for Ireland this spring.

Dave Kearney has always lived in the shadow of his brother but Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have come to rely on him since his latest resourceful recovery from serious injury; so too Adam Byrne.

Dig deeper and Ed Byrne, to the wider public an anonymous figure, has remained a key performer for Leinster away from the bright lights in dreary venues and keeps the vaunted McGrath on the sidelines. And there may still be changes, with the usual eve-of-contest doubts swirling around Seán O'Brien's physical health; Dan Leavy is primed despite a rusty hit-out last weekend.

Others might bemoan the exclusion of a Kearney here or a McGrath there but, to Cullen's mind, it is as if the 55 players he has deployed in chasing an unprecedented double-double this season are virtually interchangeable.

If one man is not able or willing to step in at a moment's notice, well then he can step out altogether should he wish.

Would that Dan McFarland had such luxury.

Ulster claim Iain Henderson is fully fit but it wouldn't be the first time this season we might discover he wasn't; he needs to hit the physical and mental pitch of his performance against France this evening because, if there is one area Leinster may be weak, it will be on the floor.

Cullen knows this much and he also knows Romain Poite can tend to swallow his whistle when the bodies fall to the deck; hence the need for a gentle reminder perhaps?

"Someone like Marcel Coetzee can cause us a lot of problems at the breakdown if we allow him the space or the referee isn't entirely diligent where he's got his elbows on the ground and still winning penalties," the supremo coyly interjected yesterday.

Even the always diplomatic Rhys Ruddock offered a nudge.

"He's one of the best referees in the world so we are hoping he will be in line with what we have seen from him in the past," he said. "Just for us, we always try to arrive in the space early to deal with the threat early and not give him a decision to make whether someone is on their elbows or on their feet."

O'Brien's selection is perhaps Cullen's only deviation from the perception that his way is different to Ireland's; then again, who's to say the Carlow man won't be more redoubtable in buoyant blue compared to the struggling Irish?

Lowe's NIQ-enforced absence was inevitable but regrettable.

Still, Leinster, abetted by a pack designed to carry, are here to play ball; Ulster will try too and fleeting glimpses this season, notably against the masters of Paris, have demonstrated they can offload and run dizzying angles with the best of them.

But they will miss the devilish detail of Will Addison, a crucial cog in the wheel that allows the unorthodox wing pairing of Robert Balocoune and obviously Jacob Stockdale to turn a match their way in an instant.

"He could come up with a big moment where he could get on the outside and chip ball over the top, and suddenly the ball kicks straight into his hands and he's under the posts," says Cullen, vocalising his worst nightmare.

Supporters will have theirs too, of their once-adored heroes, now in exile, returning south to haunt them and spring a surprise as shocking as that visited upon Munster in similar circumstances seven years ago.

Another Magnificent Seven gunning for revenge, perhaps. All with points to prove.

It is unlikely to be enough. Even after Sexton's withdrawal, the expected margin of victory only decreased by two points.

Leinster are the better team and have rarely dipped below their par; Ulster need to be well above theirs; their history of failure on days like these against their nemesis would not fill one with faith for their prospects.

Another step on the road to glory for Leinster awaits; another reminder for Ulster that their steepling summit of ambition remains tantalisingly out of reach.

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