Cullen excited to see Leinster’s young guns after ‘digging a bit deeper into the system’
OFF-BROADWAY AND away from the usual levels of attention, Leinster’s pre-season preparations have rolled on from week-to-week largely unnoticed this summer, but Saturday will present the first opportunity for Leo Cullen to accurately assess the health of his squad.
With as many as 17 players part of Ireland’s World Cup training squad, Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have been working with a much smaller, and younger, group than usual through July and August at UCD.
Ryan Baird will be among the players hoping to impress in pre-season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
The delayed start to the new Pro14 season, due to the small matter of events in Japan, means the province’s pre-season schedule has been divided into three blocks, rather than the usual two, and Saturday’s friendly against Coventry at Donnybrook [KO 3pm] will help Cullen gauge how his team is shaping up for the new campaign.
Leinster are expected to field a youthful side against the Championship side as Cullen opens the door for many of the province’s academy stars to stake their claim, before the Pro14 champions travel to Canada next week with a slightly more experienced panel of players.
That trip to Ontario to face the Canadian national team on Saturday week will bring the second block of pre-season to an end, giving the coaches a natural juncture to take stock after two hit-outs against varying levels of opposition, before attention firmly turns to Benetton away on 28 September.
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“This time of year is great,” Cullen says. “You get a lot of contact time with the players. I’ve been pretty pleased with how guys have applied themselves. We’re pretty realistic with where we are and we have a lot of work to do to try and build a cohesive team.
“They can’t get the experience overnight, but we’ll work and work and work and try and get better day by day. And it’s good for us to play a game now. We’ve trained plenty so it’s good to put it into a bit of practice to see what it’s like against proper opposition.
“Overall, we’re pleased with how we’re going along. We’ll use a good chunk of players here against Coventry and then bring a more senior group away to Canada the week after.”
In addition to facing Canada, who are using the game as part of their World Cup preparations, Cullen’s side will train and spend time together off the pitch during their mini-tour.
With so many young players currently in the dressing room, many of whom are new to the senior set-up, the head coach feels it will be an important week to build togetherness and cohesion ahead of the new season.
“That’s the type of team we want to become, we want to be close-knit,” Cullen continues.
“That’s important for us. I’m curious to see how we acquit ourselves against a team that is going to be at the World Cup.
Leo Cullen at Donnybrook this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“With the group we have at the moment, we need to make sure they’re all ready to go and know this is their window. The group that are here are working incredibly hard and we want guys to own the jersey when they have it. It’s a great opportunity for the guys here at the minute, they’ll get lots of reps and they’ll get time in games. It’s up to them at this stage.
“We’ll be pretty stretched at the start of the season, but I think it’ll stand to us in the long run.”
In addition to the players in national camp, Leinster have also lost a huge amount of experience following the departure of the likes of Noel Reid, Mick Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Nick McCarthy and Jack McGrath this summer, while Cian Kelleher — back from Connacht — is the only new addition to the squad.
While Cullen says Leinster are always on the lookout for ‘good players’, he believes there is enough talent coming through the system to step up in the coming weeks and months when the province’s unrivalled resources will be tested most.
“It’s up to us to build the depth and dig a bit deeper into the system,” he added.
“To actually be in the changing room when they’re doing it. That can be pretty powerful stuff if it unfolds like that, so ideally we want Leinster guys to come through. We’ve got some young guys working away at the moment and I’m looking forward to see how they go on Saturday.
“It’s not going to be perfect, there will be mistakes and we’ll accept that but I’m looking forward to these next couple of weeks as we’ve trained and trained, so now let’s see what it’s like in reality.”
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