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Tigers have rediscovered their claws, but Leinster have the quality to survive trip to Welford Road
Leo Cullen will be back on familiar ground when the province visit Leicester today.

WELFORD ROAD IS a stadium where the old sits comfortably alongside the new. The teams emerge from the belly of the cramped, old school Breedon Stand, which stares out at the newer, imposing North Stand and the angular Beehive Money Stand, the most modern section in both age and name. 

The place drips with history, the glory days of the 2000s looming large over a club which finally appears on the up again after spending the guts of a decade in the doldrums. 

It’s a wonderful place to watch rugby, but can be an intensely difficult place to play it. 

Leo Cullen has fond memories of the ground. The Leinster head coach spent two seasons with the club in the mid-2000s, pocketing a Premiership title and Anglo-Welsh Cup during his time there.

He’s back at Welford Road today as his Leinster team take on Leicester Tigers in what is shaping up to be fascinating Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final meeting [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport 2] – the style and starpower of Leinster visiting a resurgent force who have their eyes on a big scalp. 

“It will be strange,” Cullen admits.

“I’d such a great two years there, learned so much and great people there. I know there’s a fair bit of change, some people around that would have been there in my couple of years. It’s going to be strange down in the away dressing room. Leinster played there the season after I left there, we played in that European Cup final in 2009 as well so we’ve had some clashes since, but it’s been a while. 

It was an amazing part of my life, those couple of years. I’ve only positive experiences from my time there in terms of the people, the relationships, the supporters and the support that is in the community there. I felt unbelievably privileged to have represented that team as many times as I did, and have some success there as well which are also very, very special memories for me.

“So yeah, it will be strange for sure, but we’re away from home in Europe and you are always going to be up against a great team realistically, whether that’s a coming force or a kind of traditional powerhouse, shall we say, and Leicester are definitely in the traditional powerhouse mold. A huge club, huge fanbase, and great people there as well.”

Times have changed since Cullen first packed his bags and headed for the East Midlands. Today marks Leicester’s first apperance in the quarter-final stages of this competition for six seasons. They won it twice in the early 2000s before Leinster ever got their hands on the trophy, but the province have since caught up and then some, Cullen’s side now just one title short of Toulouse’s record haul of five.

“When I left Leinster to go to Leicester, I wanted to be part of that type of team,” Cullen explains.

“Leinster weren’t that type of team at that point in time. So obviously coming back here since, it’s always trying to pass on some of that knowledge in many ways. When I was with Leicester, we lost in the final of Europe to Wasps in 2007 in Twickenham. Raphael Ibanez scored that try at the front of the lineout, which we still talk about.

leo-cullen-and-shane-jennings-lift-the-premiership-trophy Clive Rose Leo Cullen won a Premiership title with Leicester in 2007. Clive Rose

“That’s the thing, it’s moments in the games. You’re at these playoff games and these are the games that players will remember for the rest of their days. They remember the wins at the very end when they win, but often they remember the ones that they lose in terms of when they get knocked out of tournaments.

“They’re the ones that stick in the mind. For our guys, it’s a great test against a great club. Two good teams and two good clubs going at it.”

Leinster have been able to hone in on this fixture for some time now. Most of the matchday 23 haven’t played since the round of 16 second leg win over Connacht on 15 April, the squad’s core international contingent sitting out a two-game United Rugby Championship trip to South Africa to fine-tune for this challenge.

They’re all back in blue today, Johnny Sexton captaining a team laced with internationals. The return of James Ryan represents a welcome boost, while Jimmy O’Brien gets another well-earned start on the wing and Joe McCarthy is primed for a European debut off the bench. 

Leicester haven’t had the same luxury, but looked in decent health as they stuck 50 points on Bristol Bears last week. They currently lead the Premiership by four points, having finished second-from-bottom in both 2019 and 2020, and are unbeaten at home across 13 games in all competitions this season.

inpho_01997920 Billy Stickland / INPHO Johnny Sexton captains a star-studded Leinster team in Leicester. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Head coach Steve Borthwick has led the revival by leaning back on some of the strengths that made Leicester such a powerhouse in the late 1990s and 2000s.

No team has attempted more kicks from open play in the Champions Cup this season, or made more metres from kicks, while 68% of their tries have come from the lineout, another tournament high.

They have dangerous strike players too, of course, but on paper Leinster look the more dynamic side. Yet Cullen knows it could get niggly, and has warned his players to remember their own strengths, memories of bruising encounters against Saracens and La Rochelle no doubt running through his head.

Leicester’s use of the ball will revolve around winning territory, but Leinster have the ability to stretch and probe with ball in hand.

“There’s a modern flavour to it,” Cullen says of the Leicester style.

“The game has moved on, as we know. It’s based on the Leicester fundamentals of hard work, good set-piece, get the basics of the game right and work from there.

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“You can see the good foreign guys that they have throughout the team, (Julián) Montoya, (Hanro) Liebenberg, former captain of South Africa U20s, leadership, experience. (Jasper) Wiese has obviously played for South Africa during recent times, (Nemani) Nadolo on the wing. It’s all through the team; (Matías) Moroni, (Kini) Murimurivalu.

There’s tonnes of guys there that they’ve brought in from outside, so they have a real strong mix (of international quality and home-grown talent) but it’s based on the old Leicester fundamentals and values of the way the game should be played.”

The very fact that Leinster have to travel at all this weekend is still a sore point for Cullen, the decision to hand Montpellier a 28-0 walkover back in December resulting in a black mark on their record which the province have yet to fully accept.

Today is exactly why. As tournament favourites and a team stacked with frontline internationals, Leinster should win. But history still counts for something in this competition, and home advantage counts for even more. 

Cullen knows better than most that Welford Road can do strange things to a visiting team.

LEICESTER TIGERS: Freddie Steward; Chris Ashton, Matias Moroni, Guy Porter, Harry Potter; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Ellis Genge (captain), Julian Montoya, Dan Cole; Ollie Chessum, Calum Green; Hanro Liebenberg, Tommy Reffell, Jasper Wiese.

Replacements: Nic Dolly, James Whitcombe, Joe Heyes, Harry Wells, George Martin, Richard Wigglesworth, Freddie Burns, Nemani Nadolo.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Joe McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Tommy O’Brien.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
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