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Six Nations break badly timed for Cullen's impressive Leinster

The eastern province would happily play Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-finals next weekend.

WHILE THEIR IRELAND internationals are now in camp with Joe Schmidt and turning their attention towards the Six Nations, the rest of the Leinster set-up are on holidays this week.

The break is more than deserved after a physically and mentally demanding run of fixtures that has allowed Leinster to extend their winning streak to nine games in the Pro14 and Champions Cup.

Robbie Henshaw and Jordan Larmour Robbie Henshaw and Jordan Larmour celebrate their win in Montpellier. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Their 23-14 victory away to Montpellier on Saturday was an important marker for the playing group and also ensured a clean sweep of Pool 3 of the European competition, leaving them as the number one seeds at the end of the group stages.

That achievement has been rewarded with a home quarter-final against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium, although Leinster may still have to travel to France if they reach the semi-finals and La Rochelle beat the Scarlets in the other relevant quarter-final.

Having built up so much momentum in recent months, Leinster would rather move straight into the knock-out stages now, rather than having to wait until the end of March.

Saracens have shown several glimpses of their true class in recent times, squeezing into the quarter-finals with a convincing routing of Northampton, and they will back themselves to be a whole lot better by the end of March. A thrilling tie awaits in Dublin when Mark McCall’s back-to-back champions visit.

“The challenge doesn’t get any easier against a Saracens team looking for three Champion Cup titles in a row,” said Cullen. “They’re well coached under Mark McCall and have an array of English and foreign talent at their disposal and they’re showing good form in Europe and in the Premiership.

“They’re the top try scorers in both competitions so we’re under no illusions as to the task ahead.”

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be hoping to see all of their Leinster stars emerge from the Six Nations unscathed and the coming months will be an interesting challenge as they look to maintain their momentum.

“That’s the thing – it’s difficult because there’s such a long break,” said Cullen on Saturday after Leinster’s win in Montpellier. “It’s like a different season, so you start off again, guys are working with different calls and systems.

Sean Cronin celebrates his try with Josh van der Flier Leinster's confidence is at a real peak. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“With a slightly different group, we will take on the challenges of the Pro14.”

Of course, Leinster and many professional teams have been in similar positions before, albeit that perhaps their momentum and form hadn’t been quite this strong when the Six Nations break has previously arrived.

Cullen and co. have been studying past seasons for pointers on how they can ensure their international players return to the Leinster fold ready to get back up to full provincial speed as swiftly as possible.

“We’ve looked at various different strategies,” said Cullen. “We’ll make a plan based off our quarter-final, but it’s that balance about making sure guys are fresh enough because if you play in those five games in the Six Nations, it does take its toll.

“It’s just trying to get the balance right, really.”

Among the positives for Leinster’s coaching staff is the sheer depth of their squad, meaning that even if one or two players do return from the Six Nations with injury issues, there are others ready to step in.

The level of competition within Leinster’s squad is driving everyone, youngsters and more established stars alike, to perform.

Pro14 fixtures against Edinburgh, Scarlets [twice], and the Southern Kings during the Six Nations window will allow more of Leinster’s fringe players to make an impression.

James Ryan after the match The likes of James Ryan have pushed through to create huge competition for places. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

So, while it might be frustrating for Leinster to have to break their excellent European season for now as focus shifts to the national team, the players are content that in-squad competition will ensure ongoing good form post-Six Nations.

“I think everyone is just pretty happy with the block of work that has just gone by,” says hooker Sean Cronin. “We had massive inter-pro matches over Christmas, two European games and two before all that, so it was a really tough block.

“We needed the whole squad and, as you saw, we made a lot of changes over Christmas. When you have guys coming in and out, it’s a healthy competitive environment at the moment and anyone that comes in knows they have to take their chance. It’s working out well.”

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Montpellier stars Pienaar and Cruden fancy Leinster’s Champions Cup chances

Win in France underlines Leinster’s credentials as Champions Cup favourites

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Murray Kinsella

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