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'It's such a tricky format' - Leinster prepare to launch latest European assault

Leo Cullen felt the province could have managed the squad better during the recent international break.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

AFTER A RARE slip up at home, it was back to business as usual at the RDS on Friday night as Leinster emphatically saw off a spirited Connacht side on a 47-19 scoreline.

As usual, head coach Leo Cullen pointed to the areas for improvement. Before a dominant second half performance, Leinster had found themselves chasing the game as the visitors played all the rugby, with a number of unforced errors from the home side only serving to keep the momentum with Connacht.

It was easy to forgive Leinster a touch of rustiness in those early stages, as a host of their Ireland contingent came back into the team for the first time since the November internationals. After brushing off the cobwebs, they flexed their muscles with a commanding, stylish display that once again highlighted the wealth of options available to Cullen.

Now it’s on to Europe, and Cullen will be feeling confident heading into what looks like a very manageable opening set of fixtures. His squad welcome Bath to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, with the English side looking desperately off the pace in the Premiership this season, rooted to the bottom of the table with nine defeats from nine outings.

Round two sees the province head for a potentially tricky task away to Montpellier, but for a team with their lofty ambitions, anything other than a 100% start to the new Champions Cup season will be seen as a setback.

You have to go back to 2018 for the last time Leinster won this competition. Too long, in Cullen’s eyes. Can they return to Europe’s top table this season?

“That’s what we hope every year, we can’t look too far into the future,” Cullen said, speaking after Friday’s win over Connacht.

“We just need to concentrate on what’s in front of us, we were poor last week (against Ulster) and a bit better against Connacht. So, for us it’s focusing on getting better, improving our performance. We’ve had a very short week, the guys can freshen up over the weekend and have a good training week.

“We need a bit of cohesion as a group to give ourselves the best chance in Europe in the first two weeks.

During that November period, we could have managed it better from our own point of view, potentially. It is what it is, there’s no point in worrying about it now.

“We just have to get excited about the bloc now, a good chunk of guys have played in the last couple of weekends, the group will be nice and competitive going into next week.

“They’ve (Bath) got good, young, talented players all across their team and plenty of experience thrown in as well.

“They’re a team we need to make sure we prepare well for to give ourselves the best chance, because it’s such a tricky format with just four pool games.

“With all the various challenges with Covid, disruptions etc that are potentially there – it’s important we mind ourselves during the week and that it comes to it we’re battling for every single point available.”

While Cullen looked to get minutes into the legs of his internationals, he also made an effort to keep his squad players fresh. With Johnny Sexton a doubt for the Bath fixture, Harry Byrne got the nod at out-half ahead of his brother, Ross.

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The younger Byrne had played just 38 minutes in blue this season before his 62 minutes against Connacht. It wasn’t a complete performance from the 22-year-old, but felt like an important step in his season.

It’s been a while since he’s played 60 minutes, I couldn’t tell you (when)… it’s been a fair old chunk of time. So, that’s the big thing, trying to get through the time. He looked OK, he was blowing a bit at certain stages.

“In fairness to Ross, he’s been excellent with him, helping Harry this week like a good older brother would. The two of them have been great.”

Cullen also said he supported EPCR’s decision to extend the squad registration window ahead of the opening round of Champions Cup pool games. The change means that the four URC teams who found themselves caught up in the Covid chaos in South Africa recently – Munster, Scarlets, Cardiff and Zebre – will be allowed to register additional players in time for their opening European games.

“Definitely, yeah, like a few of the teams have been stuck in South Africa and it’s unbelievably challenging for them. It would be ridiculous if they didn’t, they should be given as much time as they need – right up to the very end. Even if they have to extend it to next week would be my view.

“I don’t know the individual circumstances of what the quarantine works for the teams or the individuals, so if you get caught and come back – they need to be given every chance in the first two rounds.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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