Cullen hails Byrne’s impact for Leinster after Sexton suffers head injury

LEINSTER BOSS LEO Cullen hailed his team’s composure and the impact of Ross Byrne after they overturned an early 14-point deficit away to defending champions Exeter to advance into the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals.

Leinster’s poor start was similar to a damaging opening quarter against Saracens in last season’s quarter-final defeat but they battled back against Exeter to deservedly win 34-22 in what was one of the province’s greatest European performances.

Cullen’s side lost captain Johnny Sexton to a head injury in the 28th minute but replacement out-half Byrne had a brilliant impact off the bench.

“We’re really pleased because it was a very shaky start which reminded us of the last quarter-final of this competition that we played in where we also had a very shaky start,” said Cullen post-match.

“But I thought the prep during the week was good from the players. They knew the enormity of the challenge it was coming over here.

“The players showed really good composure and I thought the bench added through the course of the game as well, which is important, so overall a great squad effort to get through. We’ll sit back and enjoy the games tomorrow and see who we face next, which is great.”

Leinster will learn their semi-final opposition and venue tomorrow evening when EPCR carry out a live draw following the two other quarter-final games. Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle also advanced into the draw today.

The impact of Byrne off the Leinster bench in place of Sexton was crucial in Exeter and Cullen hailed the Ireland international.

Johnny Sexton will now undergo the return to play protocols. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I thought it was a great credit to Ross when he comes in and is so composed the whole time, nailed his kicks, and steered is around the field,” said Cullen. “We’re lucky with the two of them, we really are, because they’re great generals for the group.

“They have dovetailed pretty well over the course of the week. Obviously, it’s tough for Johnny coming off the way he did but I thought Ross was excellent when he came on.

“Ross has been outstanding for us and we’re really lucky with the age profile of the guys as well, with Harry [Byrne] putting on pressure from behind so they’re all equally important.”

Sexton will go into the graduated return-to-play protocols and Cullen said the 35-year-old was feeling “OK” after his head injury. The Ireland skipper missed a game during the recent Six Nations after suffering a head injury against Wales.

Leinster have sat James Ryan and Caelan Doris out of the game in recent times due to concussion issues and Cullen said the province, who don’t have a game next weekend, will take the utmost care with Sexton too.

“The biggest thing is we’re trying to take care of all the guys,” said Cullen. “Caelan and James are pretty close to a return now so Johnny, again, is similar to all the guys – we just have to make sure we look after them in the right manner.

“Just in terms of graduated return-to-play, we just need to see how he comes through and, again, the medics will make the calls there and make sure all our guys are being seen by the right people.

“That’s the most important piece because we want the guys playing for a long, long time at the club so we will always be cautious with our decision-making in that area.”