LEINSTER HEAD COACH Leo Cullen made sure not to step too far ahead of himself after the 60 – 13 thumping dished out to Northampton on Saturday.
Cullen’s side had a bonus point (and, in truth, the victory) wrapped up by half-time and moved six points clear at the top of Pool 4. Still, no time to start chasing a home quarter-final or assume the group was won for the head coach.
“We’ll see how the game (Sunday) goes,” Cullen said before second-placed Montpellier lost in Castres, pulling just one point off the deficit.
Leinster are firmly in the driving seat of the pool, buckled up with the engine humming.
A win over Montpellier at the RDS when the competition resumes in January will settle the pool with a game to spare. And with their tally of 16 points currently the third best of the five pool leaders, they will have to bear the qualification ladder in mind going into that encounter.
Of primary concern will, of course, be winning the game against a French side who gave an impressive demonstration of their power when the sides met in Stade Altrad in October.
“Montpellier are a team who have so much of a foreign influence, they’re not particularly worried (playing away from home),” says Cullen of the heavily South African-accented club who had an Australian and superstar Fijian score tries in yesterday’s defeat.
“They’re probably one of the best away records in Top 14 because, you know, it’s a very, very international flavour in their group – probably more so than any team in the globe.”
While the embattled Jim Mallinder departed the press conference shooting daggers at a journalist who repeated the coach’s own quote that Northampton fans could be happy with how the Saints players laid their body on the line, Cullen’s demeanour was much more comfortable and, asked about the current state of the pool, he joked: ‘I rarely feel in control of anything.’
Cullen has experienced the harder days where form just won’t come despite the efforts being put in. This time last season, Cullen’s first as a head coach, Europe was dead and gone after defeats in all four games. Now, they’ve won 11 of 14 matches this season and have every right to think very big.
Ahead of a block of Munster, Ulster and Zebre matches all within an 11-day stretch though, Cullen’s back-line is already being stretched. Dave Kearney and Joey Carbery both had surgery last week that will leave them sidelined for six weeks, Rob Kearney could be missing for half that time and Jonathan Sexton is still ‘we’ll see’ or ‘day-to-day’.
Fortunately, the phenomenal output of the Leinster academy keeps on rolling with Ross Byrne steering his side through almost all of the back-to-back matches with Northampton, Rory O’Loughlin impressing every time he’s called upon and Adam Byrne increasingly looking like a bona fide star.
The Kildare man has long been marked for big things in the province as Joe Schmidt gave him a debut to make him the youngest Leinster player at just 18.
Now 22, with two broken legs stunting his progress and leave him with just 10 appearances, he looks the complete package. Saturday’s brace means he leads the Leinster try-scoring charts with seven in his six games this season.
“He’s big and powerful, yeah,” agrees Cullen, but the coach emphasised the work ethic his players have rather than laying praise on too thick for any individual.
“He works incredibly hard for us and that’s probably his best attribute.”
If the players are serious about self-improvement the sky is the limit.
“That goes for every player that we have, we’ve got some talented young men, they’re working hard and pushing each other hard, which is good.”
While many of us won’t be stretching further than the tin of Roses over the coming weeks, Cullen’s in-form squad will be digging deep to ensure their current charge holds through to January so they can seal top spot and then chase another big day in the Aviva Stadium when the knock-out rounds come around.
“We need to turn our attention to the Pro12. Three games in 11 days, we know the fine margins of that competition which, if you finish down the league, gets you into a hard pool (in Europe the following season).
“We need to make sure we maintain positive momentum for those three games that kick us back into Europe.”
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