Hen­der­son and Best re­turn to boost Ul­ster

Le­in­ster’s back­row in­jury list en­sures an op­por­tu­nity for Josh Mur­phy

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gavin Cum­miskey

Le­in­ster v Ul­ster RDS, to­day, 5.35pm Live on TG4, BBC 2, Sky Sports Ac­tion and Sky Sports Main Event Strap in, be­cause the rugby does not let up un­til May.

Now we see why Le­in­ster never want to ex­port a sin­gle back­row di­a­mond.

The game they play is un­for­giv­ing: Dan Leavy, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Rud­dock, Cae­lan Doris and Jamie Heaslip suf­fer from vary­ing de­grees of pain while Josh van der Flier is pre­sum­ably frozen in a cryother­apy cham­ber af­ter his ridicu­lous 34 tack­les dur­ing the New Year’s Day de­feat of Con­nacht.

Leavy (lower back) and O’Brien (hip) are on the clock to be primed for the Six Na­tions opener in Paris on Fe­bru­ary 3rd, never mind Glas­gow’s visit to Dublin next Sun­day for round five of the Cham­pi­ons Cup.

“I could not give you a time frame,” said Le­in­ster coach Leo Cullen of O’Brien’. “I al­ways find it dif­fi­cult to com­ment on when play­ers will re­turn. Dif­fer­ent in­juries re­spond dif­fer­ently. Seanie’s mak­ing good progress.”

In the mean­time, the cup­board needs emp­ty­ing, and that is no bad thing as the as­ton­ish­ing depth of tal­ent at Cullen’s dis­posal gets un­furled with academy blind­side Josh Mur­phy gifted a se­cond start hav­ing splin­tered mul­ti­ple rucks against the Dragons in late Novem­ber.

‘Very abra­sive’

“Josh is very abra­sive,” said Cullen, “he gets through a moun­tain of work and that’s what coaches like. He broke his jaw at the end of the game against Glouces­ter but I thought in those pre­sea­son games he was re­ally, re­ally good so look­ing for­ward to see how he goes out there.”

Mur­phy, Josh not Jordi, is not your av­er­age 22-year-old pro­fes­sional.

He is study­ing medicine in UCD, hav­ing come through St Michael’s around the same time as Leavy and James Ryan.

This even­ing’s Le­in­ster open­side, Jordi Mur­phy, Cullen added, re­mains “a bun­dle of en­ergy” around the squad de­spite his im­mi­nent de­par­ture in search of reg­u­lar min­utes in the Ul­ster num­ber seven jersey next sea­son. Ex­pect a state­ment against his fu­ture team.

Jack Co­nan com­pletes the back­row with Max Dee­gan held in re­serve as Scott Fardy keeps on lock­ing be­side Devin Toner (Ryan is also hurt).

Due to the many wounded, this Le­in­ster pack will strug­gle to dom­i­nate an Ul­ster eight that sees Iain Hen­der­son and Rory Best re­turn. Their pres­ence is des­per­ately re­quired as Rob­bie Di­ack and Kieran Tread­well are un­avail­able. The Lions duo must also solve the deeply con­cern­ing dis­play by other Ul­ster for­wards against Mun­ster on Jan­uary 1st.

Only Rod­ney Ah You and Jean Dey­sel sur­vive from that start­ing pack.

En­ergy lev­els

The work rate of sev­eral play­ers, par­tic­u­larly Ah You (yanked off at half-time), will be com­pared to the guar­an­teed en­ergy lev­els of Tadhg Fur­long and Jack Mc­Grath.

Le­in­ster have set the high­est stan­dards imag­in­able, both sides of the ball, since top­pling Mun­ster in Oc­to­ber. Re­gard­less of who plays they have been re­lent­less, whereas Ul­ster per­for­mances have var­ied be­tween the rank av­er­age and the much-im­proved.

Best and Hen­der­son should change that nar­ra­tive. Also, imag­ine Jono Gibbes’s dark words on his first re­turn to Dublin as an en­emy coach.

An­other sub­plot, sure to in­flu­ence mat­ters, will tran­spire in mid­field. Fol­low­ing Bundee Aki’s skit­tling form and Rob­bie Hen­shaw’s mon­u­men­tal de­fence in Novem­ber, Garry Rin­grose is not a guar­an­teed Ire­land starter right now. Rin­grose part­ners Hen­shaw against Stu­art McCloskey and Dar­ren Cave with an ar­ray of match win­ners – the fu­ture be­ing Ja­cob Stock­dale and Jor­dan Lar­mour – seek­ing a gal­lop on the prairie.

“He’s still, what 22?” Cullen cau­tioned. “Garry is go­ing to be hugely im­por­tant to the team, we hope, in the fu­ture . . . He works hard on his game so I wouldn’t have any wor­ries about Garry.”

In case of emer­gency, Johnny Sexton also togs out. Not that Ross Byrne’s form would worry a sin­gle Le­in­ster sup­porter, but the for­mer “was keen to be in­volved”.

And so he shall be. Sexton’s en­try, if re­quired, should swing it.

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