Henderson and Best return to boost Ulster
Leinster’s backrow injury list ensures an opportunity for Josh Murphy
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.
“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.
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.