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Dublin: 17 °C Wednesday 18 September, 2019
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Familiar stage, but an unfamiliar feeling for underdogs Leinster

Toulon’s predecessors as European champions are being written off for this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-final.

Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

LEO CULLEN STARTED by raising an eyebrow to a quote from Brian O’Driscoll. Minutes later, Sean Cronin found himself comparing his current employers to Connacht.

This is a very different build-up than Leinster are accustomed to for a crunch European fixture.

“Not many people are giving us much of a shot by the sounds of it,” says Cullen, enduring a testing time in his first year as forwards coach.

“But I’ve been in this situation before where people write you off. We’ll go out and prepare, we go in with a clear plan into the game and the lads are in really good spirits, despite losing at the weekend, and excited by the prospect of going over to Marseille.”

The former captain’s furrowed brow came thanks to O’Driscoll’s assertion on Newstalk that the game ought to be viewed as “a freebie“; a no-lose situation, a time to go out swinging for better or worse.

I wouldn’t ever think of it like that. As a coach, for me [it's about] giving the lads a clear plan going in to the game. I wouldn’t get too caught up in that.”

“I’m hoping it will be pretty because that’s the way traditionally Leinster will always want to play,” Cullen added.

“As a former second row forward, I’d be happy to see us kick six penalties and win the game. We’ll go out with the intention of playing as we do every week, but sometimes it doesn’t always pan out like we prep. So we’ll see. We have full faith in the game managers, that they can make the adjustments on the day.”

A key component of Cullen’s plan for set-piece solidity and gainline advantages, Cronin brought up his Connacht days to illustrate the exemplary professionalism in Toulon’s ranks – when they visited Galway in 2010. With the West awakened in the conversation, the hooker was soon asked to ponder the underdog qualities of Leinster compared to his former employers across the Shannon.

Sean Cronin Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“It is unusual here in Leinster to be so much the underdog going in to a match. It’s not the usual scenario. At the Bath game, people were giving us a 50-50 flip of a coin. We’ve moved into that territory suddenly.

“It doesn’t effect the mindset, we know we’ve got to bring in the desire and intensity to go down there. It’s 15 on 15 on the pitch. They’re an awesome side, but we have to have a bit of belief and put on the performance of a few seasons in there.”

‘Belief’… ‘excited’… ’15 on 15′: These are the classic proclamations of an underdog who know that an awful lot will have to go their way before they come away with a win.

Leinster are only too aware that, even as the most recent previous champion, Toulon are by some distance the benchmark in Europe at present.  Going down in that quarter-final in Stade Mayol was a chastening experience indeed.

“It’s a tough ask but we’re up for it,” says Jimmy Gopperth.

We learned a lot [last season]. We went down there and we got shown if you don’t  show up ready to roll then they’re going to put you to the sword. They’re a fantastic outfit and they’re going to be waiting for us to come.”

Gopperth has been the target of many fans’ unrest, fans who see him as the embodiment of Matt O’Connor’s influence on the field. The Kiwi accepts that, with him at the controls, Leinster have been disappointing this season, but makes sure to move the blame onto the collective shoulders of the playing squad.

“If the team’s not going well the first thing they do is question the coaching, but that’s got nothing to do with it. Our coach has put out a perfect plan for us each week, it’s up to us as players to go out and execute it.

“We have been poor this year, we haven’t gelled together. We’ve been a bit unfortunate with internationals coming and going, but we have to be better than that and make the opportunities count when we get the opportunity to wear the blue jersey — it’s 80 minutes away from being a good season or a very, very poor season.”

And there’s the thing. Fall narrowly to the best team in Europe and the season has been a miserable failure. Perform brilliantly and pull off a momentous, unlikely victory away from home and the entire season is shaded with the same rosy tint. A two point swing makes the difference for a year’s worth of work.

Cronin makes the point that games like these are the reason players love to play in this competition, but the hosts in Marseille will be the only side expecting to enjoy themselves in the Sunday sunshine on the Cote D’Azur.

Matt O'Connor Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“The league is going to be very difficult, you don’t need to be a mathematician to figure that one out. That does focus the mind for sure.” says Cullen.

“Listen, it’s semi-final of Europe, an unbelievably exciting occasion – no one is under any sort of illusions about the enormity of the challenge, but that’s why we turn up every day, is to be in these situations; in the last four teams in Europe,.

“It hasn’t been particularly pretty for us to get to his point, but we’re here and we’ve got a – what did you call it? – a ‘freebie.’”

‘On Sunday it has to be 100%’: Leinster doubling down on defensive effort for Marseille

Jennings the only doubt as Leinster issue clean bill of health for Toulon clash

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Sean Farrell

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