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Leinster the team to beat, but painful European memories stick with Cullen and Sexton

“If you are a little bit off in this competition, you’ll be exposed.”

WITH A GOLD emblem proudly stitched on the sleeve of Leinster’s sparkling new European kit, Johnny Sexton was given the responsibility of bringing the Heineken Champions Cup trophy on stage at this afternoon’s seasonal launch, and with it came the first talk of a title defence.

As the rest of the Pro14 head coaches and captains laid their eyes on European club rugby’s top prize ahead of the new campaign, both Sexton and Leo Cullen were quick to point to how quickly fortunes can change at this level.

2018/2019 Heineken Champions Cup  European Rugby Challenge Cup Launch Sexton at today's Champions Cup launch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rather than referencing that indelible May day in Bilbao, or the rarefied heights Leinster scaled during their double-winning season, captain and head coach spoke about memories of three seasons ago when the province endured a particularly difficult campaign.

The message? Last year counts for nothing now.

Leinster’s defence of the trophy they lifted for the fourth time at the San Mamés Stadium begins with the visit of Wasps to the RDS on Friday 13 October, before they face a trip to France and a clash with fellow four-time winners Toulouse in round two.

For Sexton, there is no thoughts of adding a fifth star to the Leinster crest just yet, rather a determination to narrow the focus and ensure this team of champions don’t become last year’s men.

“There are lots of former winners,” the out-half said when asked about Leinster’s pool draw. “Two years ago we finished last and won just one game, so it will be a good test to see how far we’ve come.

“The motivation is always there when it comes to the European Cup, you grow up watching it and any chance you have to play for Leinster, the team I supported growing up, is special.”

Cullen was speaking off the same page.

“We just try and get a little bit better at the start of the season, the competition is getting better all the time,” the head coach added.

“We have recent memories of playing Bath, Wasps and Toulon from two years ago and that didn’t go well. If you are a little bit off in this competition, you’ll be exposed.”

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Looking ahead to the Pool 1 opener against Dai Young’s Wasps, Sexton relishes the prospect of a European night under the lights at the RDS.

Jonathan Sexton The out-half says there is huge motivation to get back to a European final with Leinster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The Friday night element to Leinster playing, that’s how I always grew up watching Leinster in a Friday night in Donnybrook and they made for special occasions,” he continued.

“I remember watching Leinster beat Toulouse and a pretty special performance from Trevor Brennan, who I’d known from Bective. Those type of memories stick with me.

“To come back on a Friday night to Dublin, which is historically where Leinster have always played, is great and I’m very much looking forward to it and I’m sure the atmosphere will be a little bit more special on a Friday night.”

All of this marks the start of the road to Newcastle and St James’ Park, where this season’s European finals will be hosted in late May. 

“It is a very special stadium, I’ve never been there but it will be my only chance to get to play there so it would be special to get there but it would be special to get to another European final,” Sexton added.

“That’s more of a motivation.”

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Ryan Bailey

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