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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 19 December, 2018

Leinster hoping to show their expansive side on the 'fast track' of the Aviva

The Exeter Chiefs will dig in for another battle, but Leinster have all the same tools sharpened and ready.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“ALL THE SAME things apply this week,” says Leo Cullen and he’s dead right.

That’s the thing with the Champions Cup December back-to-backs, after 80 minutes of getting up close and personal in round three, there’s precious little that can spring a surprise in round four.

For the most part, teams have shown their cards. So the return leg of the contest is more often a matter of who ramps up intensity and who suffers complacency than any grand tactical redesign in smack bang in the middle of the season.

Even ahead of last weekend’s trip to Sandy Park, the back-to-backs against Northampton in 2013 – when Leinster feasted on tries in Franklin’s Gardens only to be awful in the Aviva a week later — was a touchstone for Cullen. His players have followed that lead, citing the results as an example of what happens if they take their foot off the pedal and consider Exeter a beaten side.

The Chiefs are intent on holding up their end of the bargain to make this another fierce contest (kick-off 15.15, BT Sport). Like any good golfer who finds the bunker off the tee, Rob Baxter kept a realism to the situation by setting his targets on grinding out a “par” result over the course of two games. In the attempt to get the four points that would redress the balance, Baxter has freshened up his starting line-up with six changes, including the exciting presence of Jack Nowell and Lachie Turner in the back three.

Garry Ringrose Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Though Baxter bemoaned his side’s choice to move away too quickly from their pick-and-jam game, it was out wide where the Chiefs caused Leinster’s defence the most headaches last weekend.

Cullen says his own side didn’t set out to take such a direct approach last time out, so in front of 40,000 Aviva Stadium (plus anyone who walks up to buy a ticket on Lansdowne Road on the day), there’s every chance that people who brave the cold will see the more expansive side of both teams.

“Winning is the priority,” says Cullen, “but in fairness we do like to play at the Aviva, we know the fans turn up to enjoy good rugby, it’s definitely a place we like to impose our game. But winning definitely comes first, whatever it looks like, it looks like.

“We wouldn’t have gone out with the intention to play we did, that’s the way the game unfolds sometimes. You end up in front and you are trying to keep your nose in front by managing possession.

“We have a fast track tomorrow and Exeter will try to play, they changed it up from Montpellier to Glasgow as well… we need to be ready for whatever way they play.

“They’re very powerful as well. The set-piece battle Is very important. There were a couple of big moments. We looked dominant in the scrum until Tomas Francis came on  a couple of times and won a penalty for them. So it’s tit for tat.”

Isa Nacewa Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Those destructive cameos from Francis – on both his introduction in the first and second half – provided some of the most obvious work-ons for Cullen’s pack and even Cian Healy on an otherwise excellent night. Scrum coach John Fogarty offers a wry laugh when the tighthead’s influence is put to him.

“Match-ups are interesting. Jack (McGrath) handled Tomas Francis so well at the end of the game,” said Fogarty.

“You can almost get tricked into scrummaging a certain way. The way (Harry) Williams was scrummaging, Cian was doing well against him, there was a change-up and they caught us on the hop as much as anything.

“That sounds overly simple, but (Francis) had a slightly more aggressive angle in and the hooker’s lifted up our hooker. We lost our height and they’ve lots of weight in their back five that just fucking came around. It was interesting that Kvesic picked the ball out of the back of the scrum - I didn’t think that was legal – but as far as the scrum battle they won that little battle.”

Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud

Despite a six-day turnaround shortened by a flight cancellation, Cullen has made just one enforced change to his starting XV with Josh van der Flier replacing Rhys Ruddock who is due to go for surgery on his serious hamstring injury. Van der Flier’s presence pushes Sean O’Brien across to the blindside of the back row and gives Leinster a set of flankers that will be a continuous poach threat on the Chiefs’ ball.

The changes among the replacements sees Dan Leavy come in as the back-up back row while Andrew Porter replaces Michael Bent as cover for the freshly contracted Tadhg Furlong.

Jordan Larmour and Jamison Gibson-Park hold their place on the bench too despite the addition of James Lowe to Leinster’s squad this week.

The Kiwi wing’s talents are being held in reserve for the seasonal inter-pros ahead thanks to that pesky tournament rule 3.7 limiting teams to two ‘non-European’ players – though that definition is far from watertight as the Cotonou Agreement makes African and Pacific nations legally exempt from it -  Cullen has filled those berths with Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park.

“There is so much changing of teams that you need depth in all areas,” said Cullen, accepting that it’s far from ideal to keep Lowe on ice while Leinster play out pivotal European fixtures.

James Lowe Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“James already brings something different to the group, to the dynamic. It’s really positive… he’s not long here and he has come off two long seasons. There are a few things that we just want to tidy up and we want to make sure that he is comfortable in Leinster’s system.”

The former Waikato Chief is one to look forward to on another day, so. This afternoon, it’s about Exeter Chiefs and the English champions will be no less fierce or physical this time around.

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. Sean O’Brien, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Jack Conan

Replacements: 16. James Tracy, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Andrew Porter, 19. James Ryan, 20. Dan Leavy, 21. Jamison Gibson-Park, 22. Ross Byrne, 23. Jordan Larmour

Exeter Chiefs: 15. Lachlan Turner; 14. Jack Nowell, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ian Whitten, 11. Olly Woodburn; 10. Gareth Steenson, 9. Nic White; 1. Ben Moon, 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Tom Francis, 4. Mitch Lees, 5. Sam Skinner, 6. Don Armand, 7. Matt Kvesic, 8. Sam Simmonds

Replacements: 16. Jack Yeandle, 17. Alec Hepburn, 18. Harry Williams, 19. Jonny Hill, 20. Tom Waldrom, 21. Will Chudley, 22. Sam Hill, 23. James Short

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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