Cullen: Leinster selection process far from easy

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Leinster boss Leo Cullen named an unchanged starting line-up from the semi-final win over Toulouse for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final showdown with Saracens but insisted it was a far from straightforward selection process.

Head coach Cullen was able to name the competition’s leading scorer Sean Cronin at hooker for the first time since that April 21 victory over the French Top 14 leaders to keep the same XV for Leinster’s bid for a record fifth European title.

Cronin had injured a calf muscle in the 30-12 semi-final win yet speaking after his matchday squad had trained at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park stadium on Friday, Cullen admitted the question of the Ireland hooker being fully fit for the final was still to be unanswered.

“We’ll soon find out,” Cullen said. “When a guy picks up an injury in the semi-final, his calf, we knew it was going to be a little bit tight with Sean but he’s trained okay this week and hopefully he’s good to go.

You never have 100% certainty but for a final, you take a little bit of a chance. But he’s trained this week so hopefully he comes through okay.

Cullen said there were some difficult decisions on selection, although a hamstring injury to scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park saved him the conundrum of choosing two from three of his Australian and New Zealand-born players, with James Lowe starting on the wing and Scott Fardy at blindside flanker.

“Selection has been tough over the course of the year, in a good way I think. There’s a couple of guys who had to get some bad news this week, even though the 15 is the same there were a couple of tweaks along the way and a couple of changes on the bench as well.

“Some of the selection decisions certainly weren’t taken lightly. It means a huge amount to the wider group, a lot of guys that aren’t involved in the 23 prepared the team this week and it is also hugely important to the overall outcomes and the levels of performance that we see at the weekends.

“So some tough decisions. This 15 did a good job in the semi-final, there’s always temptations as coaches to tweak with that but we’re going with the same team.”

There are two changes to the Leinster bench with Ireland and Lions loosehead prop Jack McGrath recalled as back-up to starter Cian Healy in place of Ed Byrne while at tighthead, Michael Bent got the nod ahead of Andrew Porter. Cullen said both Byrne and Porter had been unfortunate to miss out.

“I think sometimes, with a team like Saracens, with a very strong set-piece, Jack has a lot of experience playing at the highest level and in terms of the way we think the game will unfold, his strengths suit this challenge.

“Andrew Porter’s a little bit unlucky, he picked up the injury and hasn’t really featured the last few weeks. He has trained fully this week and was available but it was just a little bit too tight with him.

Michael Bent, he’s been so important to us over the course of the season, you think back to some of the games when we’re down 15, 20 players and he’s come up with five scrum penalties. He’s been hugely important to the success of the group over the course of the season. Even coming off the bench against Toulouse, I thought he had a really good impact as well.

Saracens make two changes to the side which dispatched Munster in their semi-final three weeks ago, with Sean Maitland back on the wing having been a late withdrawal from the side which won 32-16 at the Ricoh Arena and Will Skelton in at lock as director of rugby Mark McCall reconfigures his pack in the absence of the injured blindside flanker Michael Rhodes.

David Strettle drops to the bench as Maitland returns to the back three on the left wing, Liam Williams switching to the right, while Maro Itoje moves from the second row to cover Rhodes’s position as Skelton fills the vacancy at lock.

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