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Leo Cullen's switch doesn't mean he is finished

By Michael Sadlier

The timing seemed appropriate as a man so closely associated with Leinster's rise from perennial underachievers to a becoming a driving force of European rugby was neatly lined up for a new role just as things began to look a bit wobbly around the place.

Leo Cullen's anointing as part of next season's Leinster coaching structure at least means that the southern province will not be losing one of their fundamental leaders after his retirement from the game at the end of the current campaign and if anyone epitomises what the men in blue are all about it is the veteran second row.

And with two successive defeats behind them there is at least some semblance of having a safety net in place once the more high profile stars – with Brian O'Driscoll being the most obvious – take their leave of the playing field.

Though Cullen's inspirational leadership is in no way guaranteed to work in a coaching capacity, the notion of continuity at a time when they have put themselves under pressure in Europe, by somehow losing their way at home to Northampton Saints a mere week after tanking them in Franklin's Gardens, and then following that up with another defeat in the PRO12 at Edinburgh, does offer some reassurance.

The term 'boot-room' was bandied about at the start of the week in the sense that Leinster were seeking to bring through key on-field leadership qualities to the next stage in their need for continual growth and the desire to satisfy their considerable appetite for more silverware.

You see, whether they accept it or not, Leinster are in transition. Matt O'Connor is in his first season as coach and is having to follow the lead set by Joe Schmidt's successful tenure while also having to oversee the playing departures of O'Driscoll and Cullen and managing to address the situation over the undoubtedly soon to go Gordon D'Arcy, Eoin Reddan, Shane Jennings and Mike Ross.

And then O'Connor has had to ponder the possibility that both Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien could be on the verge of being lured away by more lucrative contracts to either England or France.

That's all for the future, both head coach O'Connor and skipper Cullen have enough on their plates for the present with more than a pressing need to deliver the right result over Ulster tonight as shipping a fourth defeat in 11 PRO12 games would not be great as they go about their title defence.

And the coach has bolstered his side by bringing in some players who were at Schmidt's pre-Christmas get-together at Carton House with O'Brien – playing his second PRO12 game of an injury-hit season – coming in alongside Mike McCarthy to boost Leinster's presence up front in a pack which will have the same front row as last week in Edinburgh as Michael Bent, Aaron Dundon and Martin Moore continue.

Elsewhere, Rhys Ruddock also gets a run-out in the back row which with O'Brien and Jordi Murphy offers up an interesting combination.

At scrum half Isaac Boss gets another chance to get one over on his former team and his partnership with Jimmy Gopperth – who is brought in for Ian Madigan – gives Leinster an all Kiwi half-back partnership.

Springbok Zane Kirchner continues at full-back in a back three which also contains Luke Fitzgerald from the previous week but now includes Dave Kearney who was at the Ireland camp and, in midfield, Brendan Macken comes in for Brian O'Driscoll while Noel Reid is retained at inside centre.

As Cullen will undoubtedly mention, a performance will not suffice, just a win.

Belfast Telegraph


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