top spot

Cullen happy to avoid 'stressful moments' as Leinster secure home semi-final

The defending champions assured themselves of top spot in Conference B with victory over the Cheetahs last night.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS

THE MISERABLE WEATHER conditions contrived to make what promised to be an entertaining affair something of a damp squib, but Leinster will hardly mind as they knocked off a seventh straight victory to guarantee themselves a Pro14 home semi-final. 

A hard-fought 19-7 win over a resilient Cheetahs side is unlikely to feature in the end-of-season highlights reel, but securing home advantage when the league play-offs roll around in May is a considerable box ticked off for Leo Cullen’s side.

Scott Fardy congratulates Max Deegan on winning possession Max Deegan was outstanding for Leinster last night. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Victory last night not only assured them of top spot in Conference B with four regular-season games remaining but crucially offers the defending Pro14 and European champions a two-week run in to the Champions Cup final in Newcastle, should they advance that far. 

All of that remains much further down the line, as for now Cullen and his players will enjoy a short break at the start of next week before resetting and turning their focus to the business end of the season, with their European quarter-final against Ulster just four weekends away.

It’s hard to accurately assess Friday night’s performance given conditions played such a part and while Leinster will certainly reflect on areas they could have been sharper, there were several outstanding individuals contributions across the 80 minutes.

Cheetahs, to their credit, were stubborn in defence and brought an intense physicality to the breakdown and contact zone, perhaps surprising Leinster by kicking long at nearly every opportunity in the first half.

It didn’t make for a particularly entertaining contest for the 10,057 souls who braved the elements, but Leinster had more than enough in the tank to get over the line through tries from Conor O’Brien, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin.

“Conditions made it very difficult but overall we’re pleased to get the win as it sets us up for later in the season,” Cullen said afterwards.

“The Cheetahs came with a plan, they wanted to kick the ball long, keep it on the field and almost trick us into playing back at them. We coughed up a try from a turnover situation and it almost made us a little bit jittery. We maybe got a little bit too cautious. 

“But we got the points we needed and we have a bit of a break now to try and regenerate and store up some energy for the challenges that lie ahead now.” 

Among the standout performers in blue was Max Deegan, who was deservedly named man of the match, for another all-action display as he again excelled in the number seven jersey. Caelan Doris wasn’t far behind either.

Scott Fardy led from the front as usual, Bryan Byrne caught the eye at hooker and there were lively cameos from O’Brien, O’Loughlin and Dave Kearney in the backline, even living off scrappy ball and precious few attacking opportunities.  

Conor O’Brien celebrates scoring a try with Ross Byrne Conor O'Brien scored his sixth try of the season. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Nonetheless, a third win of this particular Six Nations block extends Leinster’s lead over Benetton at the top of Conference B to an unassailable 26 points, with Cullen admitting he is pleased to avoid a repeat of last season’s situation at the Sportsground.

He explained: “I won’t have that feeling when we were down in the Sportsground last year thankfully.

“We got beaten 47-10 and I was scrambling around asking what the score was in the Scarlets-Dragons game. Even doing the press after that game, I still had to ask Marcus [O'Buachalla, Leinster media manager] and Guy [Easterby, rugby operations maager] ‘Do we actually have a home semi-final? Are you sure, are you sure?’

“Because after losing that game to that extent, we never want to go through that experience again regardless if we qualified or not. It’ll save us those stressful moments. 

“The players have worked hard during this period. They’re creating good competition in the group which is good because that drives the individual and collective performance.

“They know what’s at stake, they knew what was at stake for them tonight. Then they [Ireland players] all come back in after the Six Nations and then suddenly everyone is jostling for positions in the team.”

Leinster will have a two-week break before they resume their Pro14 season with a trip to Edinburgh on 22 March, a week before Ulster visit the Aviva for the Champions Cup quarter-final derby. 

“It creates a few more [selection] dilemmas for us as coaches and hopefully guys can kick on now for the rest of the season,” Cullen added.

“Hopefully we get everyone back healthy and well and then we can make decisions.”

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the backlash to World Rugby’s league proposal, captaincy styles, sports psychology and more in The42 Rugby Weekly.

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