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Leinster v Ulster: Frustrated Rob Kearney out to ease European misery

By David Kelly

As two of Ireland's stunned European flops return to domestic action at the RDS this evening, one wonders whether collective group therapy might be as much in order as an 80-minute blow-out.

Both Leinster and Ulster are already on the verge of elimination before the year is out - certainly neither can afford another slip-up - and both sides are conscious that previously perilous league form is now inextricably linked to their ongoing European fate.

Understandable, then, that there has been a fair measure of angst within both camps as they seek urgent pick-me-ups on their return from fruitless European endeavours.

Leinster full-back Rob Kearney, included as one of eight changes - predominantly influenced by IRFU player management edicts - to the side beaten in Bath after missing both European ties with hamstring trouble, said: "We've lost two weeks in a row so we came in on Monday and it wasn't a particularly nice place to be.

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"People are p****d off with each other. Everyone wants to get back on track and when you lose games like that it hurts, you can't go out onto the training field on Monday and pretend everything's hunky dory because it's not."

Zane Kirchner will make his 50th Leinster appearance when he starts on the right wing.

Kearney returns for the first time since the home win over Scarlets earlier this month, with Luke Fitzgerald named on the left wing as Ian Madigan starts at No.12. Luke McGrath comes in at scrum-half to partner Jonathan Sexton in place of Isaac Boss.

There are four changes to the pack; Jack McGrath replaces Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong starts after featuring for Leinster 'A' last week, Mike McCarthy comes in to replace Hayden Triggs and Josh van der Flier starts in the back-row after his try-scoring debut in the Champions Cup.

Sadly, Jack Conan has had to undergo yet more surgery on an ankle problem which will extend his absence from two to three months.

For all of Leinster's vivid struggles in Europe, they are five from six in their recent run of PRO12 games and a keen observer of Leo Cullen's influence will have noticed the emergence of young stars.

That the experienced pros have utterly failed to deliver is their responsibility, not necessarily the coach's.

Openside Van der Flier has proved to be one of the brightest jewels, a view franked by a try just four minutes into a sparkling European debut against Bath.

Cullen, who has also seen Garry Ringrose and James Tracy develop promisingly of late, enthused: "Josh has done enough to deserve this start.

"He's done plenty in the last couple of months. He's been excellent for us.

"I'm not massively surprised because he puts in an incredible amount of work in his preparation, to make sure he is as good as he can be, and there's nobody that spends more time working on their game than him.

"He's a really, really good example of a guy who has just come through the system, put his head down and you can see it in his performance. He's very, very accurate in what he delivers - week in, week out."

Cullen is the coach of an organisation desperately seeking, on the field at least, to avoid chaos - and clearly not making a great fist of it in a European context at least.

Some might suggest that Cullen, given his own personal experience of having to abandon the province for a stint overseas, may struggle to convincingly persuade leading agitators such as, say, Ian Madigan to bide their time in Dublin.

"I'd like to think that Leinster are in a completely different place now than what it was in 2005," argued Cullen.

"Where we were at that point in time was very chaotic. So I'd like to think the organisation is in a better place to sell itself in terms of what we can deliver for players.

"I went to Leicester for very different reasons. So it is easy for me to talk from a different viewpoint because it's completely different. That's 10 years ago.

"And I came back in bits! So I fully understand the physical toll it takes over there. But I'd be balanced in the advice I'd give to any player who comes and asks for my opinion."

Added to that, there is the further complication of attempting to avoid every walking doom-monger in the land scripting the impending irreversible decline of Irish rugby.

"I think it's a pessimistic viewpoint where you'd say Irish rugby is going to struggle in the next few years," added Cullen. "There's always concerns. There's always fears.

"We have a smaller pool of players but the players get managed better here. That's a fact. For longevity, you would hope guys would look at that.

"Okay, guys might earn more in the short-term. The longer-term view is that you might get another two or three years onto my career. But it is very hard to have your crystal ball out.

"That's what we're trying here with the system that's in place in Ireland. Up until this point, it has worked reasonably well. I've been overseas before. You get flogged in comparison. I've been through that process."

Guinness Pro12 League: RDS, Leinster v Ulster, tonight (7.35pm).

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