Leinster's Johnny Sexton during training. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Leinster treading carefully ahead of return to France

Leo Cullen has used last year’s defeat to Toulouse to inform preparations for Saturday’s game in Lyon.

GIVEN THE RELATIVELY small pool of teams that regularly compete in the Heineken Champions Cup, it’s refreshing to have the novelty of looking forward to an all-new fixture this weekend.

Not only have Lyon never played Leinster, they haven’t played any Irish opposition in this competition before.

So, how will Leinster’s coaching brain trust have gone about preparing for the unknown?

For a start they will have identified the usual factors that come in hand with any trip to France. The crowd at the Matmud Stadium de Gerland will play their part. Lyon will be physical up front, but they also like to throw the ball around and it won’t take much for the game to slide towards chaos.

Leo Cullen, the Leinster head coach, should also benefit from the fact his team were far from their best in beating Benetton last weekend. Conceding three tries at home is a crystal clear indication that there is room for improvement. The fact they never really pulled away from the stubborn Italians will have kept his players on their toes ahead of what promises to be another tricky trip to France.

Lyon are not a team littered with top-quality internationals, and they used that to their benefit by shooting to the top of the Top14 during the Rugby World Cup. Before losing their Champions Cup opener away to Northampton last weekend, they had won eight from nine in the league. They sit five points clear of second placed Bordeaux, and the gap opens up to 14 points before you reach third placed Pau. Whether Lyon are good enough to continue their league charge as the internationals trickle back into their rivals’ starting teams is up for debate, but the fact that they have been able to build some momentum is all that will concern Leinster. Lyon lost all six of their pool games in last year’s Champions Cup, but they haven’t been beaten at home since March.

Add in the fact that during last year’s pool stages, reigning European champions Leinster were stunned by a rampant Toulouse side at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, and it is safe to say the province will approach this tie with caution.

Lyon may not have the fire power of some of the other French teams, but they still pack some punch. Noa Nakaitaci will need to be well marshaled on the wing, while powerful centre Charlie Ngatai, a one cap All Black and former team-mate of James Lowe’s at the Chiefs, may have enjoyed a more fruitful career in the black jersey in another life. 

Leinster certainly have the tools to win in Lyon, but Cullen knows they need to be on song.

“When you see the European draw it’s, ‘okay what’s the French team. When are we going to France?’,” Cullen says.

“Last year in Toulouse, we had seen a lot of footage of Toulouse and we could see some of the threats. But you get there and there’s this cauldron atmosphere and it’s a very different team to what you’ve analysed on the footage. 

“Then you see Ugo Mola’s [Toulouse head coach] reaction at the end, see the players, how they celebrated when they scored their tries, the crowd, the noise, everything. ‘This is a big deal’. It’s a big deal for them, it looks like, to play against us. Which is in one way a complement, because you can see how much it means to them. They’re not making it up. 

leo-cullen Leinster head coach Leo Cullen during a training session in Donnybrook. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“But it’s also the realisation for us that we know what we’re getting ourselves in for at the start of the week – as in, a year ago. That’s what we’ve tried to focus on this week, understanding what it means to these guys to win against Leinster. It’s a positive sign that they treat the game to that extent. 

“Lyon are sitting pretty in the Top14. They were beaten by Northampton, they’ve actually rested a couple of their key guys there, but they’ve such a deep squad. You look through the squad: [Baptiste] Couilloud at scrum-half, [Jonathan] Wisniewski, Charlie Ngatai - All Black – at 12 who makes things work for them… A lot of guys who have been around the Top14 and they’ve got some very good young french players, [Felix] Lambey in the second row is one of the top players coming through. But they’ve signed guys like [Xavier] Chiocci; crafty operators who have been around the block in the Top14 and know how to, get the job done, is probably the best way to be complimentary.” 

For the majority of Leinster’s squad testing trips to France are nothing new, but as ever there is also a fresh batch of young players in line to taste that famous French atmosphere for the first time.

Hooker Rónan Kelleher keeps his place in the Leinster team after a fine European debut against Benetton, while Max Deegan makes his first start in the competition at number eight.

“Whatever about coaches delivering messages, I think the players doing it is more powerful,” Cullen continues.

“You gotta pick them [young players] for the games. We talk about guys coming through, play for the Pro14 team, play for the European team. If you go well in that scenario it’s not long before guys go on to play for Ireland.  That’s what we hope.  

“For some of our guys it’ll be a great step, a great test, this game. This is why you get involved in the game. We all love playing in the home games, but when you go to France it’s a bit more of a test of our manhood, so to speak. 

“Can we stay in control in the environment with all the chaotic bits going around – trumpets and bands and crowd noise and cheering, opposition flying into you, maximum pressure the whole time and them playing on the edge?

“Can we think clearly with all that going on in the background?”

You only have to scan the team-sheet to see just how seriously Leinster are taking this challenge. Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong all make their first starts since the Rugby World Cup, while the experienced head of Scott Fardy is brought in to add some calm amid the chaos.

Survive the noise and confusion in Lyon, and Leinster will be in prime position ahead of the December double-header against Northampton.

This is a team that means business. Expect them to get the job done.

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman join Gavan Casey in studio to preview the second weekend of Champions Cup action


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