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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 24 May, 2020

Leinster's quarter-final route opens up ahead of Toulouse showdown

Saturday’s six-try rout of Bath has made the path to a home quarter-final somewhat clearer for the defending champions.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

AS LEINSTER FANS sheltered themselves from the biting wind and unrelenting rain on Saturday evening, waiting until the very last moment to leave the inner sanctuary of the stadium’s concourses, they did so glued to a gripping game in Toulouse.

Wasps had been pushing their French hosts, raising hope of an upset heading into the final quarter much to the interest of the crowd at the Aviva Stadium, only for Toulouse to clinically pull clear to go four from four in Pool 1. 

Jack Conan celebrates scoring a try with Garry Ringrose, James Lowe and Dan Leavy Leinster were at their best on Saturday night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It meant Leinster went into their round four reprise with Bath seven points off their fellow four-time European winners, the defending champions requiring a response of their own to stay on course for the quarter-finals.

Leo Cullen admitted he had only seen ‘very small bits’ of Toulouse’s bonus-point win at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, but Leinster were able to focus on their own job and in dismantling Bath with a six-try rout, set up a mouth-watering and pool-defining rendezvous with the Top 14 side at the RDS on 12 January.

With this in mind, and the frustrations of last weekend’s sub-standard performance at the Rec still niggling away, it didn’t take long for Leinster to enter big-game mode, as they produced a statement of their own in front of 40,261 at the national stadium.

The attacking bonus point was wrapped up before the half-time interval, as Cullen’s side got into the festive spirit with a stirring display, the province showing more accuracy, intent and attacking ambition with their greater control and improved work in the contact area the key difference from seven days ago.

The Leinster head coach was relatively satisfied, and indeed relieved, as he spoke to the media in one of the dressing rooms deep in the bowels of the Aviva, emphasising that his side just need to take care of what they can control in the final two rounds of the pool stages.

“It is very easy to get side-tracked by some of those things you actually can’t control,” he said.

“The weather wasn’t actually as bad as we thought it was going to be in the first half, but it was horrific there at the end of the game.

“I was glad we got tries on the board early in the game because it was going to be difficult to try and chase them as the game went on it and it became very hard to play.”

Cullen was pleased with the clinical edge his side showed in the first half, as three of the four tries were scored by the trio of players recalled to the starting XV, namely Jack Conan, Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne. The other was scored by the now undroppable James Lowe.

“I thought the guys were very clinical in taking opportunities when they came along, we controlled the game pretty well, and knew where we wanted to play the game,” Cullen continued.

“We were just better in the contact area all around, on both sides of the ball also. It was important we stayed in touch because it was always going to difficult to get out of the pool.

Leo Cullen during the press conference Cullen speaking after Saturday's game. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We are in a slightly better position, we’ll see how the other pools sit but, for us, it is simple; focus on going out to win two games and hopefully that’s enough for us to top the pool.

“With that, there is still a couple of dynamics there as we know. It is not straightforward with the bonus points but at the moment there is a slightly clearer focus.”

Sitting two points behind pool leaders Toulouse heading towards their Dublin showdown after Christmas, Cullen’s side remain in control of their own fate and will be confident of securing a home quarter-final by going back-to-back against the French outfit and Wasps in Coventry in January.

It was certainly a much-improved performance from Leinster on Saturday having failed to really hit top gear during the opening rounds of their title defence, although one of the few blemishes was the concession of two tries.

For Cullen, there are always areas requiring refinement and improvement.

“I think it was just the attitude the players showed during the course of the week,” the former second row explained. 

It is being realistic enough to know, even though we won the game last week, to know that there were parts of our performance that we weren’t happy with.

“It is about trying to take the learnings from that game and understand how we can get better. I think the more time we spend together, the better we can be.

“If we are prepared to take on board feedback and work hard towards what we are trying to achieve, then we will get better. During this period, we will try and manage the group well and other guys will get opportunities.

“Every week we ask ourselves the question ‘did we get the selection right?’ And you never know the answer for sure but we certainly ask the question.

“A lot of guys are pushing hard for selection and will get the chance to play now over the next few weeks, and will get a chance to put their hand up. That’s what we want, a competitive group.

“You see the amount of injuries there are now and it is about being smart about how we manage the group. We have some guys who are mad keen to play.” 

Attention now turns to the busy Christmas inter-pro period, which sees Leinster resume their Guinness Pro14 challenge with home derbies against Connacht and Ulster and their anticipated visit to a sold-out Thomond Park on 29 December.

Adam Byrne celebrates scoring a try Adam Byrne was one of six try-scorers against Bath. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cullen was therefore relieved to report that the double champions suffered no fresh injury concerns on Saturday evening, explaining that both Tadhg Furlong and Josh van der Flier were withdrawn early in the second half having ‘struggled a bit during the week.’

With Andy Friend’s in-form Connacht first up at the RDS this Saturday, Cullen is likely to shuffle his deck after the exertions of back-to-back wins over Bath, with several players chomping at the bit to come in and stake their claim again.

It remains to be seen if Rob Kearney, who missed Saturday with an unspecified knock, will be fit for selection, while the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Fergus McFadden remain sidelined.

“If you think of the games against Ospreys and Dragons [last month], a lot of guys went well in those games,” Cullen added. 

“We talked about trying to keep a settled look about the team for these two games. We will chop and change a little bit during this sequence of games and give guys a proper opportunity.

“They are all working hard for each other behind the scenes. We always talk about this, the opposition team at training, the level they bring to the week quite often is hugely important in terms of the actual performance of the 15 guys on the field at the weekend.

“I thought guys applied themselves really well this week.

They brought a good edge to training and there were guys pissed off that they were not involved over the last two weeks and some of those guys will get a chance next week against Connacht.

Eight straight Pro14 wins has opened up a 14-point lead at the summit of Conference B for the eastern province, and Cullen will look to reward the younger players who impressed during the November block with game time in the coming weeks as they strive to build further momentum. 

“There was an amazing crowd out there today at the Aviva and I believe we’ve got a couple of big crowds for the inter-pro games as well,” he added.

“We will play the inter-pro games in front of full houses and that leads us into Toulouse and trying to get something out of Wasps the week after and Scarlets the week after that.

“Then, we can have a break.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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