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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 15 April 2021

'Dev has been fantastic... you can see that he wants back into the national squad'

Leo Cullen’s side are thriving thanks to the presence of in-form men all over the pitch.

THE GHOSTS OF Christmases past continue to swirl and spook caution in the coaching box while Leinster send out a team to play with a remarkable blend of freedom and precision.

The eastern province looked in phenomenal shape as they wound up with a resounding 16-43 win away to Premiership leaders Northampton Saints. Through the second half they were controlling, in the first they opened themselves up to trade blows. They can win any way they want right now.

james-lowe-makes-a-break James Lowe breaks away with Sexton in support. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

We suspect Leo Cullen would urge caution ahead of the return fixture even if Jonathan Sexton had not suffered a nasty-looking knee injury and if the Saints had not left a chance or two behind them. That deep bank of European memories within the head coach bring him back to several examples to keep his side from easing off the pedal.

The oft-referenced cautionary tale of December back-to-backs is Leinster’s 2013 home loss to Northampton in the Aviva – a week after demolishing them 7-40 in Franklin’s Gardens. At his juncture for Cullen, it’s not so much the chastening experience of an eerily quiet Lansdowne Road that haunts him. It’s the consequences of it in a tournament where every point can be a seismic shift on the quarter-final fixture list.

“That meant we were away to Toulon for a quarter-final – which I remember because it was my last game as a player in this competition,” says the former lock.

“So, yeah, huge knock-on effect of literally every single point in these round robin games before you get to the knock-out stage. We’re in a good position at the moment, but we can’t take anything for granted moving forward because every point is so valuable.”

On Saturday afternoon’s evidence, it’s difficult to imagine – for us onlookers or Saints boss Chris Boyd – a turnaround on a similar scale to that which Matt O’Connor’s side suffered six years ago.  Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s Leinster were both irresistible force and immovable object.

The faith placed on Jordan Larmour was repaid in great big spades as he scythed through gaps to help Leinster attack from deep. However, the coach’s praise got no more lavish than calling the fullback a “constant threat”.,

Josh van der Flier demanded the man of the match gong after his side’s strong second half defensive showing in which he reached 17 tackles. Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe posed never-ending problems in breaking and broken field and then there was Devin Toner. The old totemic figure in the pack whose height, reach and line-out nous brought aerial steals at vital times for his side. The lock is an extremely useful weapon for a team to have in its arsenal.

His absence from the World Cup looks stranger and stranger as the autopsies and fall-out continue.

“Dev has been fantastic,” Cullen said while pointing out the lock had also put in a tough shift on a hard track in Glasgow.

api-ratuniyarawa-tackled-by-devin-toner-cian-healy-and-james-ryan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He has applied himself so well and you can see that he wants to get back into the national squad. He’s still hungry and we’re still trying to provide the platform for him to do that. Good competition in the second row.”

Good competition all over.

The machine is greased with such premium product at the minute that even Sexton’s injury is no great cause for anxiety. Ross Byrne will slot back in and the depth chart will bubble up his kid brother Harry or Ciaran Frawley as the next reserve. Indeed, even before Byrne got on the field in Northampton Leinster ploughed away with 14 men and scored while Sexton was being aided to the sideline.

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“It was just, ‘lads, keep playing, keep playing’. We had maybe four penalty advantages during that series of play and that it so pleasing because other people are stepping up,” said Cullen.

“You’re not relying on one main distributor, ball-player. We had 14 men that were still going all-out attack and to have that killer mentality is important. It was a massive part of the game. No-one was looking around.”

Players in the eastern province just don’t feel like they can afford to look over their shoulder and risk breaking stride. The hungry young players snapping at the heels have a voracious appetite for every opportunity that comes in a blue jersey. Ronan Kelleher has taken his World Cup year chance with two hands. Caelan Doris is another success story as he goes from strength-to-strength in Jack Conan’s absence.

“The competition is just healthy for the group. It is bringing out the best in people, generally. Even the guys that are losing on tight calls, no-one is skulking around at the moment. They know their chance will come. We’re happy to keep guys fresh as well, rotate the group and pick who we think are performing best. It’s not rocket science, really.”

No. Merely carefully thought-out chemistry with explosive results.

“This year, the big focus is on the group who didn’t get selected for the World Cup. A huge investment of time has gone in from a coaching point of view and from those guys as well.

james-tracy-and-ronan-kelleher-celebrate Hookers James Tracy and Ronan Kelleher celebrate. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The attitude they’ve had has been fantastic. With the guys coming back from the World Cup, you can’t fault their attitude, but the first couple of weeks with those guys coming back in, you’re just trying to build that cohesion and understanding in what we’re trying to do.”

And all the while the ghosts rattle their chains.

“Everyone’s been working hard in the background. It’s such an unusual season and a lot of us are pretty badly burnt from this time four years ago, if you remember, where we were beaten in our first two games and then we lost the back-to-back games against Toulon.

“We were zero from four and we don’t qualify from the group.”

Four years on from Cullen’s rookie year as a head coach, it’s Leinster who are the most frightening prospect around Europe.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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