'There is a younger group striving for success for the first time'

Leo Cullen wants his Leinster squad to make the most of a ‘special moment’ after booking their place in the Champions Cup final.

Hugo Keenan and Josh van der Flier celebrate Saturday's win against Toulouse.
Hugo Keenan and Josh van der Flier celebrate Saturday's win against Toulouse.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

JUST ONE FINAL obstacle stands in Leinster’s way as the province look to secure a fifth Heineken Champions Cup title, with Leo Cullen’s side now set to take on La Rochelle in the 28 May decider in Marseille.

Many of Cullen’s key men have been here before – captain Johnny Sexton has been part of four Champions Cup winning squads – but this is also a different Leinster to the side that competed in the 2018 and 2019 European finals, beating Racing 92 in Bilbao before coming up short against Saracens in Newcastle a year later.

They’ve lost a large amount of experience and leadership over the last few seasons in the form of Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien and Dan Leavy, to name a few, but have added a more dynamic edge to their game by bringing through a number of gifted young players.

Of the 23 players involved against Toulouse on Saturday, 11 have never featured in a Champions Cup final before, namely Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Rónan Kelleher, Ross Molony, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Ciarán Frawley, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Byrne and Joe McCarthy. 

Some of those names are now key cogs in their Leinster team. No player beat more defenders than Keenan (5) on Saturday. Molony and Van der Flier (13) topped the tackle charts.

The energy the province now bring to the pitch is also striking. For large portions of a one-sided semi-final, a jaded Toulouse simply couldn’t live with the tempo of Leinster’s play. On top of that, they are playing with supreme accuracy, with some of their work around the breakdown as sharp as it’s ever been.

And most encouraging for Cullen, it feels like this is a team that still has more to offer.

Leinster have one more assignment before boarding a plane to France, with the province back at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday for a United Rugby Championship clash with Munster, with Cullen expected to rest his frontline stars ahead of Marseille. This is the one they so desperately want.

“We were down in Marseille before. We played a semi-final there against Toulon but for our guys now it’s about trying to recover,” Cullen says.

“We have a big game here next week against Munster: back to the URC. We want to put on a big performance here next week.

There are different layers in the group. You have guys like Johnny (Sexton) who has experienced lots of positive memories and a few tricky ones along the way, as we all have, and then there is a younger group that is striving for (European) success for the first time.

“Next week we’ll have some players that are desperate to put their hand up, that’s what we want to see from them.

“So that’s the thing that’s probably occupying most of my thoughts at the moment, is getting ready for a team (La Rochelle) that we know are very ambitious to be very successful as well. They’ve come out publicly and said their desperation for trophies and I guess investment they’ve put in, in terms of some World Cup winners into their squad as well.

jimmy-obrien-makes-a-break Jimmy O'Brien makes a break against Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So that’s probably the thing that is actually taking up most of my headspace at the minute because that’s the way our minds go to, which is the next challenge.”

Leinster will bring a strong travelling support to France, with no shortage of tickets available for the stunning 67,000 capacity Stade Vélodrome. It’s not the easiest destination for those looking to make the journey, with hotels already limited and flights booking up quickly. Even in the hours after full-time on Saturday, a number of extra flights to Marseille were added and quickly sold out.

“Hopefully there’ll be a few planes on and we’ll have a sea of blue down in Marseille because that would be amazing,” Cullen continues.

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“Like, last week the support in Welford Road was incredible, the 4,000 people that made the trip over there.

We won a final in Bilbao, I know it’s not France, it’s Spain, but there was an amazing sea of blue that day. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have is that drive into that stadium literally into a sea of blue covering the tunnel.

“They’re the special moments that you get, I guess the honour of representing this team. We’ll have a group of players that will get to run out here next week (against Munster) and hopefully we’ll have a big turnout again, and then we turn the page to Marseille.

“We know we’ve a quarter-final the week after that in the URC so it’s an unbelievably exciting period of games, isn’t it? The group have been pretty well managed so we should be fresh and raring to go.

“We picked up a couple of bangs and knocks today, hopefully none of them are show-stoppers, but it’s just getting excited about the next challenge now. It’s not Marseille, it’s back to the Aviva next Saturday, 7.15pm.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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