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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 26 January, 2020

Cullen can smile about 'tough period' as Leinster look to extend perfect start to season

The province are expected to make it 11 wins in a row when they take on Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen keeps an eye on yesterday's Captain's Run.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen keeps an eye on yesterday's Captain's Run.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

THE SIGNS ARE not good for Northampton Saints, who arrive in Dublin today looking to, at the very least, improve on the 43-16 thrashing dished out by Leinster at Franklin’s Gardens last Saturday.  

It won’t be any easier for them in the belly of the beast. Leinster can be pretty ruthless when it comes to this particular stage of the European season. 

As expected, head coach Leo Cullen has used the second of these back-to-back Heineken Champions Cup games to flex some muscle, making a total of five changes to his team

Then you have the stats, which Northampton will have been wise to ignore this week. 

Leinster have won their last 14 home games in the Champions Cup. They have won by at least 27 points in each of their last three games against the Saints. Before Racing’s clash with Ospreys last night, they were level with the French side as joint-top try-scorers in the tournament this season (13).  

They are also thriving without the ball. They have made the most tackles (488) in the tournament so far – with the superb Josh van der Flier top of the individual chart (55) before last night’s games- while only Lyon (2) have conceded less tries (4).  

What we are saying is that it would take a brave man to bet against another Leinster win at the Aviva Stadium this evening (5.15pm, BT Sport, Virgin Media).  

They are red-hot favourites following the nature of their performance in England last weekend, their dominance all the more impressive given they were at the home of the current Premiership leaders. 

Northampton will also be mindful of the fact that Leinster did most of their damage in the second half of what had been an intriguing contest. Cullen’s side led by three points at half time, but pushed that out to 27 over the next 40 minutes, running in a total of seven tries. Another solid start this time around will be crucial for Northampton’s chances, but they also need to find an added level of resilience. 

Yet the Saints won’t be the first team to put it up to Leinster for a sustained period only to end up dazed and confused.  

The province have come a long way under Cullen’s watch. Four years ago, in his first season in the hot season, Toulon came to Dublin at this time of the year and beat the Blues by four points. Leinster would lose five of their six pool games that season.

“There was so much change going on at that time. We were a very green group, it is fair to say, a very inexperienced group doing the jobs,” Cullen said, reflecting on his start to life as a head coach. 

“Lots of good people with great intent but definitely inexperienced in terms of miles on the clock. I was just trying to get through it. 

tadhg-furlong Tadhg Furlong comes back into the Leinster team for the visit of Northampton. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“There was lots of great intent in some of those games but the landscape was quite different then, if you remember, with Toulon being the team that they were at that stage. We lost a game down there [that season] when we had lots of good chances. 

“We were on the back foot in a lot of things but ultimately we weren’t good enough. There were other teams in Europe that were better than us and we were desperately trying to figure out ways how we could improve; adding to the group in terms of some players and grow some of the younger players was going to be important as that was the main tool for recruitment. 

“How do we push guys through, how do we get good coaching into them with various outside experienced coaches that we had, with some people in on short term stints, we were just trying to learn how to get better. 

“It was a tough period to get through. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, put it that way.” 

Cullen can talk openly about how difficult that period was, because he now finds himself in charge of one of the most competitive sides in world rugby.

Looking at where they were not so long ago, it is quite remarkable just how quickly Cullen’s team built a new empire. Not only are they regular challengers in Europe again, they are a dominant force. They are not just winning games in Europe, they are swatting teams aside. It would be a shock if they did not win the Guinness Pro14 again this season.

Former Wallaby Scott Fardy was one of the players brought in to add some extra steel to the pack. Now in his third season in blue, he joins the conversation around the best overseas imports at Leinster.

Fardy, who captains the side in Johnny Sexton’s absence today, remembers being struck by the winning mentality when he first set foot in the team’s UCD base back in 2017.

“I saw a lot of internationals, who made up a large part of the Irish team,” Fardy recalls.

“I saw a group of guys that were hungry to learn. They still are today. Their ability to take in information in this group is crazy. I remember sitting in meetings going, jeez, this is long compared to what I was used to Australia. We would only meet for about 10 minutes in Australia as guys would lose their concentration, me especially.

scott-fardy Scott Fardy during Leinster's Captain's Run on Friday. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I probably got better at that. It’s the ability to take in information week in week out and then produce it on the field.”

Fardy is one of the five new faces this week, with Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath, James Tracy and Tadhg Furlong all stepping into a team that you could hardly call weakened.

Some of those changes are injury enforced, with Sexton laid up until some time in the new year, yet Byrne has shown time and again that he is a perfectly able deputy. 

Cullen was quick to praise the 24-year-old’s attitude yesterday. Despite constantly delivering for Leinster, Byrne often misses out on the big days. He has been capped just three times for Ireland and was not selected for the World Cup. Closer to home, this will be his first Champions Cup start since the defeat of Toulouse last January.

He’s not the only one in the squad who may have been feeling aggrieved over the past few months, something which Cullen acknowledged at yesterday’s Captain’s Run.

“Across the board, Dev (Devin Toner), as an example, has come back and has been exceptional for us. Dave Kearney missed out [on the World Cup] as well. Dave is flying at the moment as well,” Cullen said.

“Fards got dropped last week but he has come back in and seems to have got over it okay.

“You can see the way the game is now, there are injuries all the time. You can’t roll out the same team. The game is physical and you want to be able to prepare properly for the games. 

“The competition is good. The shake down for when really, really big games come, everyone is firing into camp – whatever it is, Six Nations and Irish guys, it’s a nice competitive environment. 

“You are going to see that over the next few weeks in the [Pro14] inter-pro games where Irish guys go up against each other. Those games are competitive as well, which will be great to see.” 

Equally interesting are some of the names that didn’t make the cut. For the second week running, Rob Kearney has to make do with a place on the bench as Jordan Larmour continues at full-back. With Rónan Kelleher nursing a hand injury, Tracy is preferred to Sean Cronin, a decision Cullen says was made with a view to not rushing players back. With Toner and Andrew Porter also among the replacements, Cullen has plenty of heavy artillery to call on as legs begin to tire.

A win against Northampton would represent Leinster’s 11th victory on the bounce, as they look to continue their unbeaten start to the season. That run could well extend far into the new year.

The team that Leo built is looking as strong as ever.


15. Jordan Larmour
14. Dave Kearney
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong 
4. Scott Fardy (c)
5. James Ryan 
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flyier
8. Caelan Doris


16. Bryan Byrne
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Devin Toner
20. Max Deegan 
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ciaran Frawley
23. Rob Kearney


15. Ahsee Tuala
14. Ollie Sleightholme 
13. Matt Proctor
12. Andy Symons
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro 
10. Dan Biggar 
9. Connor Tupai 

1. Francois van Wyk 
2. Michael Van Vuuren 
3. Paul Hill
4. Api Ratuniyarawa 
5. Alex Coles
6. Tom Wood (c) 
7. Jamie Gibson 
8. Lewis Ludlam


16. Sam Matavesi
17. Alex Waller
18. Ehren Painter
19. Lewis Bean
20. JJ Tonks
21. James Mitchell
22. James Grayson
23. Fraser Dingwall

Bernard Jackman joined Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell in studio to chat about the remarkable John Cooney and the Ireland captaincy. 

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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