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'Ronan and Jono, two men we know very well, have been building a great side'

Leo Cullen and Leinster will have to beat French opposition to win the Champions Cup.

Ronan O'Gara before La Rochelle's win against Sale.
Ronan O'Gara before La Rochelle's win against Sale.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IN RATHER CHARACTERISTIC fashion, Leo Cullen cooled things down on Saturday evening after his Leinster team had delivered a superb performance to come from 14-0 behind to end Exeter’s reign as European champions.

While the rest of us considered where this ranked among Leinster’s greatest European performances, Cullen wasn’t getting carried away.

“It’s hard to get that excited with winning quarter-finals,” said Cullen of Leinster’s 34-22 win. “Yeah, it’s a good performance and there’s lots of good stuff in it, but it’s like a lot of these things – you perform really well in the quarters and don’t turn up in the semis, then what was the whole point of putting in a positive performance in the quarters in the first place?”

This is one of the things Cullen is good at. Teams are often a reflection of their head coach and so, the composure Leinster showed at Sandy Park was unsurprising.

Cullen has already turned his attention towards the next job – a trip to Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle in the Champions Cup semi-finals in three weekends’ time.

It’s the tie every Irish rugby fan was hoping for in yesterday evening’s draw, pitting some familiar faces in France against a Leinster team seeking their fifth European title.

“Their win on Saturday against a very good Sale side was impressive and we have a big three weeks of preparation ahead of us now,” said Cullen. “Obviously Ronan and Jono, two men we know very well, have been building a great side there and it will be a huge challenge going there and winning in France.

“But this is where we want to be – competing against the very best sides in Europe and we very much look forward to the challenge of the coming three weeks and building towards that game.”

Leinster are heading into a welcome rest weekend before they are due to open their Rainbow Cup campaign against Munster on the weekend of 23/24/25 April, allowing them to build into the La Rochelle clash. 

jordan-larmour-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-despite-joe-simmonds-and-ollie-devoto Jordan Larmour celebrates his second try against Exeter. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leinster benefited from a host of high-quality individual performances last weekend and could also welcome back some of their missing men – James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Garry Ringrose, and Will Connors – in time for the La Rochelle clash.

“I can’t speak specifically but generally hopefully a good chunk of the guys who are injured will be back for our next game against Munster,” said Cullen. 

“It’ll be a case-by-case basis, but definitely we’ll have a few of them back. We’ll see how next week goes.”

If Leinster get past La Rochelle, they will face French opposition in the Champions Cup final too, with Toulouse and Bordeaux contesting the other semi-final.

It’s no surprise to Cullen that the Top 14 clubs are so strong.

“It’s something we’ve discussed since the end of my playing time with the emergence of Toulon. Then in the very early days, Toulouse had such a strong impact with the players they had and the budget and resources and all the rest.


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“We had to try and come up with a model that was going to be competitive and not just for a short time but a longer period of time.

“The resources the French teams have, they’re not going away, are they? They’ve signed a big TV deal again so they are locked and loaded in many ways. They have some pretty powerful and wealthy backers to some of those teams as well.

“That’s the exciting challenge for us, to pit ourselves against them and all the while trying to get to these days. Once you get to these knock-out games, then it’s about how do you go about winning them? We’re a step further than we were last year.

“We lost to Saracens in a final [in 2019] and lost to them in a quarter-final [last year], we’ve managed to get into another semi-final now.”

Originally published at 06.00

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Murray Kinsella

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