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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 25 September, 2018
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Home quarter-final within reach for high-flying Leinster

Leo Cullen’s side welcome a severely-depleted Glasgow Warriors outfit to the RDS knowing victory would secure top spot in Pool 3.

Leinster have won the their last seven games.
Leinster have won the their last seven games.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

THE EQUATION IS straightforward for Leinster, as they return to their RDS citadel for the third straight week knowing one more victory in this faultless European campaign to date would secure them an all-important home quarter-final with plenty of breathing space.

The promise of home advantage in the knock-out stages will provide enough incentive and motivation for Leo Cullen’s side, for whom there is no real danger of complacency despite their imperious form which has seen them embark on a seven-game winning streak across the Guinness Pro14 and Champions Cup.

The last team to defeat them were today’s opponents, Glasgow Warriors, and that alone, coupled with the expectation that the visitors — whose tangible interest in the competition has long been over — will come out swinging, makes this a potentially dangerous tie for the eastern province [KO 1pm, Sky Sports].

Even with the last eight within touching distance, Leinster only have to rewind to the corresponding fixture two seasons ago when their team of tyros blew Bath’s quarter-final ambitions away to recognise the pitfalls of taking anything for granted at this juncture.

Cullen rolled the dice that day as he gave six players — including Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath and Tadhg Furlong — their first European starts, while eight of their starting XV was aged between 20 and 24.

“I remember hearing and reading comments how I was disrespecting the competition by picking some players for their first starts in Europe,” Cullen recalls.

“Some of those guys went on to do really well in that game. We need to make sure that we understand that even if these guys have not played a massive amount of big European games that they will have something to play for and that makes them [Glasgow] very, very dangerous.”

The kids did well, and Cullen’s masterplan has fallen into place.

“Some of those guys have gone on to get capped for Ireland since which is really pleasing,” Cullen continues. “The following November, five out of six got capped for Ireland or at various stages.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at Friday's press conference. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“That was as nervous as I have ever been before a game as coaching or a playing. How those young guys go is important to me and to the club. We want to try and do what’s right by them. It’s great to see the progression of those players.”

How things have changed. Leinster are on the other side of that fence tomorrow, readying themselves to face an opponent with little in the way of points and qualification to play for, but the chance to go out and stake a claim for themselves on the European stage.

Dave Rennie’s severely depleted side travel to Dublin bottom of the pool and without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Zander Fagerson and Jonny Gray among many others, but Cullen warns: “It’s very dangerous to think too much about what players aren’t there.”

Leinster are also without some stars of their own, mainly Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose through injury, while Cullen has opted to leave Rob Kearney on the bench with no doubt one eye on the six-day turnaround before Montpellier.

But Exeter’s demolition job of the French side on the south coast of England yesterday afternoon means Leinster can get the job done later with a win of any kind and not have to worry about what happens on the final weekend of the pool stages.

It’s a great place to be, and all the variables indicate that they will have no problem in recording a fifth Pool 3 win and extending their good recent record over the Scottish side in Europe; Leinster have won six of their seven games against Glasgow in the competition, and haven’t suffered defeat when the two have met since 1999.

20-year-old wunderkind Jordan Larmour gets another chance to shine at fullback with the aforementioned Kearney held in reserve, while there is also a European debut for James Lowe, the Kiwi who has made an instant impression since his arrival before Christmas.

Lowe’s inclusion in the back three alongside Larmour and Fergus McFadden means there can be no place in the matchday squad for Jamison Gibson-Park given Scott Fardy’s presence in a formidable pack.

Employment laws mean Leinster can only field two out of three of their Antipodean players, meaning Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have had another thing to factor into their difficult selection conversations during the week.

“It’s not the ideal one,” Cullen admits.

Jack McGrath speaks to the team in the huddle Leinster are aiming to win their opening five games for the first time since 2004/05. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“At some point, Jamison becomes qualified (for Ireland) after the three years, so that obviously changes the dynamic a small bit, and James the year after. It is what it is.”

Those decisions are the height of Leinster’s problems these days, and naturally comparisons are being made with bygone seasons when the province reigned supreme in Europe.

For Isa Nacewa, the captain who returns from injury today to partner Robbie Henshaw in midfield, the big difference between now and 2012 is that youth is very much the order of the day. And that’s what makes it all the more exciting.

“One of the things that really stands out for me is the amount of young guys that have been capped and stepped up in the last 18 months to two years,” he says.

“When I came here in 2008, there was the likes of Fergus McFadden, Rhys
Ruddock, Dominic Ryan, Eoin O’Malley, guys that were young at the time who really stepped up and there has been a massive influx in the last two-to-three years of guys coming out of the academy and the dynamics of the team has changed.

“There are not too many old heads any more, there’s a lot of young guys that
have been given an opportunity and taken it. That’s a good environment to be a stepping-stone towards.”

It’s now four years since Leinster lifted silverware of any kind, but victory today would be another big step in the right direction.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Isa Nacewa (captain)
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath

1. Jack McGrath
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Jordi Murphy
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. James Ryan
20. Dan Leavy
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Ross Byrne
23. Rob Kearney

Glasgow Warriors

15. Ruaridh Jackson
14. Lee Jones
13. Huw Jones
12. Nick Grigg
11. Niko Matawalu
10. Peter Horne
9. Ali Price

1. Jamie Bhatti
2. George Turner
3. Siosiua Halanukonuka
4. Robert Harley
5. Greg Peterson
6. Matt Fagerson
7. Matt Smith
8. Adam Ashe

Replacements:

16. Grant Stewart
17. Alex Allan
18. D’Arcy Rae
19. Kiran McDonald
20. Chris Fusaro
21. George Horne
22. Brandon Thomson
23. Henry Pyrgos

Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Ryan Bailey

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