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'We definitely lacked composure': Leinster look for rhythm in final rounds of Champions Cup pool

Leo Cullen will lose a chunk of his squad for the first half of this week.

SIX NATIONS PREPARATION has already started for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.

The Kiwi serial winner convened a group of international players in Carton House yesterday to look ahead to a new look Championship which begins in Murrayfield next month.

Josh van der Flier and Hayden Triggs tackle Tommy Bowe Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The date in the diary was enough to convince Josh van der Flier into an “early night” on Saturday. New Year’s Eve and a win over Ulster weren’t worth lengthy celebrations and he instead set his mind to a sit-down Sunday with Ireland plays and calls.

It’s a sign of a union employing joined-up thinking, keeping players up to speed with the national team so that they don’t feel bombarded when the Test window rolls around.

For provinces though, it’s another chunk of time lost when, ideally, they would like to be perfecting their own playing structures.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen spent a fair chunk of his New Year’s Eve media minutes pointing out the ring-rust that was partly the reason behind their failure to turn a dominant three-try performance over 42 minutes into a bonus point win over Ulster.

Les Kiss’ men, for their part, improved drastically after a calamitous first-half to dominate territory and win the second half make the final score a respectable 22 – 7.

“The problem was a lot of our possession was in our 22,” Cullen said of the second-half siege.

“So we had to relieve pressure. But we definitely lacked composure. You get that when guys are a bit rusty and we’re still working on various combinations.

Garry Ringrose Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We hadn’t a huge amount of prep time coming into this game. We’re coming off a five-day turnaround, we’re reshuffling the team. There’s plenty of challenges at this time of year, you’re expecting to be ‘not perfect’.”

Two games into a run of three matches in 11 days, Cullen’s thoughts quickly turned to Friday’s meeting with Zebre at the RDS. He will lose a large contingent of his squad in body and mind to Carton House, but some will be allowed filter back in as he attempts to sync units and combinations up before the resuming the chase for a Champions Cup home quarter-final with Montpellier’s visit to Dublin.

“We’re in a seven-game block, but it’s not like a seven-game block where we’re all together. There’s chopping and changing in the middle of that.

“At some point during the year we need to build and get continuity. Because guys came off November (internationals), came back in, some of them hadn’t played. You’re into two huge European games, there’s games going on, you’re managing guys’ time off here and there – that’s the challenge we face.

“There’s 22 Pro12 games, six European games, so we try to get all hands on deck making sure everyone is clear on what we’re trying to do. Because we’re still a bit off in terms of having that real clarity of purpose. But we’ll get there.”

Leo Cullen with Ross Byrne Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Whether Cullen will have Jonathan Sexton back in harness to help force that clarity is still less than concrete. Following November, Leinster coaches have consistently said the out-half’s situation is ‘day-to-day’, but the hinted return points have stretched from Northampton to Christmas inter-pros and now we’re into 2017 with the head coach quickly brushing past the subject of the Lions 10 to talk up the man in possession of the jersey.

“We’re hopeful, but Ross (Byrne) has gone well. That’s another real positive step. It’s a big ask for Ross backing up such a physical game last week.

“It’s a huge step up for a guy like Ross. He’s still in the academy, stepping into the senior squad next year. I thought he acquitted himself really well, you could see he started to cramp at the end. He had another tough 70 minutes tonight, I thought he’s gone really well.

“He’s very driven. Works hard and he’s hungry to be successful both personally and for the team. He’s been in the building a few years now. He’s pushing hard, had a bit of a taste of it (first-team action) last year. And I think the more players get a taste of it, the more comfortable they get and the more they want to stay there.”

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Sean Farrell

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