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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 22 January, 2020
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Leinster vow to put in more than just improved performance with season on the line

‘We’re good enough to go out and win every game’.

THE EARLY PORTION of the season always had caveats in the shadow of the World Cup, but it’s still unsettling just how quickly the mood can shift around a professional outfit.

When we watched Leo Cullen’s young Leinster squad in action at home in October, they seemed to bounce around the field, in and out of tackles, playing a brand of rugby that brought a smile to the faces of everyone around the RDS.

Add the internationals back into the mix, the consensus agreed, and that brand would only be applied more consistently by the Boys in Blue. Instead, the returning stars have almost seemed like a weight, pulling expectations back down to earth.

Jonathan Sexton Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Managing that integration of big names on top of the week-in, week-out up-and-comers has been among the toughest jobs Cullen has found in his first year as a head coach. And the pressure is on this weekend to get the delicate balance right between detailed micro-management and just plain letting players play.

Last weekend’s home humbling at the hands of Wasps now shapes the entire approach to Leinster’s season. Two penalties in 80 minutes on home turf is not the return of a team with aspirations to win the title. Momentum is at a negative because the eastern province now face two incredibly difficult away trips before they invite Toulon back to Dublin.

It’s not impossible though.

In 2010, Leinster made the semi-finals after topping their pool despite losing, as reigning champions, at home to London Irish in week one. Last season, Wasps lost their opening two, but scrambled back into the quarter-finals before being out-gunned by Toulon.

Having left the World Cup not believing their own luck at how, Sexton aside, they steered clear of injury trouble, Leinster have duly made up ground since. The eastern province enter today’s do-or-die clash at the Rec (kick-off 15.15) without Jack Conan (broken foot), Rob Kearney (hamstring), Sean O’Brien, Richardt Strauss and Mike McCarthy (all concussion).

However, Cullen’s hopes of retaining a serious interest in Europe beyond Christmas have at least been boosted by the return of Rhys Ruddock, captain Isa Nacewa, Luke Fitzgerald and Ben Te’o.

The return of such assured operators, particularly in midfield, were sorely needed and they must feel like a mini cavalry arriving just in time for Cullen; the provincial legend, but rookie coach who suddenly found himself in the position of underlining his suitability for this particular hot seat.

“In terms of European experience, there’s not many people have more,” Cullen said, knowing the time for bashfulness was when victories are on the board.

“Regardless of who was sitting in this chair, there was going to be a challenge this year – with the nature of people coming in and out. For me, I have a lot of experience with the group and with Leinster Rugby and I’ve a lot of experience in Europe – not necessarily as a coach, but what it involves to be successful in these campaigns.”

The former lock adds: “I will endeavour to do the best for this club, because it means a huge amount to me. I’d be a firm believer in the ability we have in this building.

“We had a bad day at the office, and it’s important that we address certain things that did not go well and move on to the next challenge.”

Rugby Union - Aviva Premiership - Semi Final - Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers - Recreation Ground Source: Andrew Matthews

Ulster’s performance last night was proof that a week off is no guarantee of having any physical advantage over an opponent. Bath are not favourites to beat the three-time European champs today because their planned tussle with Toulon was postponed (not cancelled as much as owner Bruce Craig would like it to be). Bath are favourites, because they have a quality coach, some electric backs behind a very effective pack and an openside in Francois Louw who was only overshadowed by David Pocock and Michael Hooper during the World Cup.

Cullen spoke at length on Thursday to sharpen the focus on improvement for his team after what was an all-time European low for many involved. However, just in case anyone felt concerned that pretty patterns were being prioritised over a big fat W, Cullen issued a reminder:

“Every week we go with a mind to win. I’d never set out a team just to be competitive.

“We want to win every game we play, we think we’re good enough to go out and win every game we play. It doesn’t always happen, but we feel we’re good enough to take on anyone in this competition.

“It’s about putting a plan in place, and a lot of the plan would have been in place before the weekend.”

The season starts here for Leinster. Because if it doesn’t, a sizable portion of the campaign is as good as over.

Bath

15. Anthony Watson
14. Semesa Rokoduguni
13. Ollie Devoto
12. Kyle Eastmond
11. Matt Banahan
10. George Ford
9. Chris Cook

1. Nick Auterac
2. Rob Webber
3. Henry Thomas
4. Dom Day
5. David Attwood
6. Matt Garvey
7. Francois Louw (c)
8. Leroy Houston

16. Ross Batty
17. Nathan Catt
18. Max Lahiff
19. Stuart Hooper
20. Alafoti Fa’osiliva
21. Niko Matawalu
22. Rhys Priestland
23. Tom Homer

Leinster

15. Isa Nacewa (c)
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Ben Te’o
12. Luke Fitzgerald
11. Dave Kearney
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Isaac Boss;

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5. Hayden Triggs
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jamie Heaslip

16. James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. Martin Moore
19. Dominic Ryan
20. Josh Van Der Flier
21. Luke McGrath
22. Ian Madigan
23. Zane Kirchner

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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