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Leinster not getting caught up in Exeter's fairytale story

Leinster face a side who were in England’s second tier eight years ago, but there’s no room for sentimentality against the Premiership champions.

ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, Stuart Lancaster was doing his bit for the next generation of Leinster prospects.

The former England boss regularly puts himself back at the coalface of Leinster’s production line, packing his time at work in Dublin wall-to-wall with the not inconsiderable role of coaching Leinster and also redistributing knowledge on down the supply chain.

With a fleet of coaches in attendance behind a troupe of 15 and 16-year-old schoolboys, Lancaster talked his way through the attacking element he was aiming to ingrain as a fundamental skill before going out on the field, helpfully mic’d up, to put the theory into practice.

Before he introduced the boys to their tight running lines and ‘bullet’ screens though, Leinster’s senior coach touched on a selection of other attacking approaches.  And there, popping up again and again as an example of sound, fluid, possession, was Exeter Chiefs.

The challenge for Leinster this afternoon (kick-off 17.30, BT Sport), Lancaster says, is to put more pressure on the English champions’ attack than perhaps they’ve faced before.

That’s a tall order, seeing as the Chiefs face up to Saracens at least twice a season, but Leinster have been making an absolute mockery of the Champions Cup pool of death so far. The bonus point win over Montpellier was followed, much more improbably, by a dismantling of a Glasgow Warriors side who have scorched through all-comers (Leinster included) in the Pro14.

So the eastern province arrive in Sandy Park today with a perfect 10 points on their record, just the sort of sheen the Chiefs love to scuff up. They have just the tools to do it too. Now English champions, this is a club that has pretty much personified the phrase ‘greater than the sum of their parts’ since winning their way up from the Championship in 2010.

Thomas Waldrom Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

They have the heft, most notably with the powerful throwback number 8 Thomas ‘the Tank Engine’ Waldron and the tireless openside Matt Kvesic, in a tremendously hard-working pack that will give Leo Cullen’s maul defence plenty to ponder over the course of the 160 minutes ahead in the next six days.

Behind the pack, on top of the excellent Henry Slade, there are two Ulstermen plotting Leinster’s downfall too. Ian Whitten and out-half Gareth Steenson are emblematic of the Chiefs’ (or rather Rob Baxter’s) ability to recruit players who were frozen out elsewhere, back them, adopt them into the culture and the framework so that they can flourish anew.

That said, Cullen takes a slight bit of umbrage at the notion that today’s opponents are without star names. Sometimes it just takes a tight five forward to appreciate them.

“They’ve invested heavily in their squad as well,” contends Cullen, who played in this fixture when the Chiefs first entered Europe’s top club competition in 2012.

“Take tight-head as an example: they’ve Harry Williams, who’s an English international. They’ve Tomas Francis on the bench, who’s a Welsh (international) tight-head. They’ve Greg Holmes, who’s an Australian tight-head and they’ve Moray Low, who’s a Scottish tight-head. That’s how much they’re willing to invest in that one area of their team.

Leo Cullen and Rob Kearney Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“So they use their money in a slightly different way, but they still pump plenty of resources behind their team.

“It’s not that they’re this ‘journeyman team’. That’s not what they are. They’ve a lot of very, very accomplished players, and you can go across different parts of their team as well, and they’ve that same level of depth.”

“They come into the system and they have their system in what they do, and they’ve looked for players that will do what they want them to do. That’s why I say you’ve got to admire the way they’ve gone about their business. They’ve a very clear vision of what their game is, that’s what it appears certainly from the outside, and they pick players that fit that system.”

Sean O'Brien Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Speaking of very, very accomplished players, Cullen has been able to recall an encouraging number of Irish internationals for the formidable challenge ahead. Rob Kearney will be looking forward to playing back-to-back weeks more than anyone after hitting top form again in November. Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are back together after seven months apart – not the ideal prep, but not a strange one for an Irish province either. Jonathan Sexton is Jonathan Sexton and with Sean O’Brien on board, Cullen and Lancaster have the formidable poach threat they need to upset those spells of Chiefs possession and pile the pressure on.

“You are trying to deny them opportunities to get into your 22 in the first place,” Cullen says of the challenge his maul faces.

“Our discipline is very important and (it’s important) we are not giving away penalties from which they can kick the ball 40 or 50 metres down into the corner where they can catch, drive, then it collapses and suddenly they are doing these pick-and-goes around the edge.

“Discipline is always crucial in these big games, but if they do get into those areas it’s about making sure we win those contacts because it is the little game of the inches that people talk about. It’s important we stop those pick-and-goes dead and that we’re not giving them momentum.”

As the Chiefs have shown since 2009, they only need a sniff of the stuff.

Exeter Chiefs

15. Phil Dollman
14. James Short
13. Henry Slade
12. Ian Whitten
11. Olly Woodburn
10. Gareth Steenson
9. Nic White

1. Alec Hepburn
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Harry Williams
4. Mitch Lees
5. Jonny Hill
6. Don Armand
7. Matt Kvesic
8. Tom Waldrom

Replacements

16. Jack Yeandle
17. Ben Moon
18. Tom Francis
19. Sam Skinner
20. Sam Simmonds
21. Will Chudley
22. Sam Hill
23. Jack Nowell

Leinster

15. Rob Kearney
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Isa Nacewa
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jack Conan.

Replacements

16. James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. Michael Bent
19. James Ryan
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Jordan Larmour

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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Sean Farrell

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