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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 10 December, 2018

Lessons and mining vast experience in Leinster doesn't end with place in the final

Leo Cullen has built a team to compete on two fronts and sustaining momentum in the Pro14 could be vital to hopes of hoisting silverware in Bilbao.

THE OVERRIDING THEME for Leinster all week long, and much further back than that, as they prepared to face a frightening Scarlets attack was one of lessons learned and a vow to make their rate of improvement crystal clear.

As they have done from the off in the Champions Cup this season, the eastern province trained their sights on specific areas of the game and reeled off magazine after magazine until the target was in shreds.

Garry Ringrose celebrates after the game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A five-try to-one 38-16 trouncing of a Scarlets team who arrived in confident mood and in form is an A+ statement, not only for the Champions Cup final that awaits them, but for the business end of the Guinness Pro14. Because another lesson Leinster learned in the closing weeks of the 2016/17 season was that separate competitions can still bring implications for the other.

Though there was a knowing laugh when he wedged a mention for Leinster A’s win over the Jersey Reds while listing the positives on Saturday, head coach Leo Cullen was utterly serious about watching their game back with a view to chasing down the single point required to guarantee a finish above Scarlets in Pro14 conference B.

Whether the point is needed or not, he needs a performance against Connacht in the Sportsground, where the western province will be intent on making John Muldoon’s farewell bash a memorable one.

James Lowe celebrates after the game with Sean Cronin and Tadhg FurlongJames Lowe celebrates as Leinster earned him and Luke McGrath a chance to play in the Champions Cup finalSource: Bryan Keane/INPHO

This time of the season often holds the possibility of parting shots, but it’s tough to escape the similar scenario Leinster loped through last season.

In the wake of their thrilling Champions Cup semi-final loss to Clermont, Leinster turned to the second string to fill the fixtures before the home semi-final against Scarlets.

The eastern province’s academy is rightly vaunted, but the floodlight failure during the narrow win over Glasgow was not a good omen, the raucous loss to an Ulster side giving Ruan Pienaar an almighty send-off was a chastening way to build up to another knock-out game. By the time it came to face Scarlets, even at home and with Steff Evans sent off with 43 minutes still to play, there was rust on those brilliant blues.

Ruan Pienaar of leaves the pitch Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Having been able to ease off the pedal a long way from full-time on Saturday, the personnel in Leinster’s ranks will be relatively fresh. So the need for rest ought not be an urgent one. There is a valuable prize for securing top placing in Conference B by performing in Galway; a weekend off before the Champions Cup as opposed to being dragged into a Pro14 ‘quarter-final’ against the Cheetahs.

Four weeks between season-defining games was too long for Leinster’s front-liners this time last year. A two-week lead up to a Champions Cup final in Bilbao sounds ideal for a team with crammed with experience of big-game preparations.

“If you learn from the experience, I guess,” says Cullen, vying to become the first man to win a European Cup as both player and coach with a team with a wealth of medal-winning nous.

“It hasn’t served us great in the last four or five years. There is a lot of experience the group can draw on, certain characters in the group at least.”

The head coach lingered on those years since Leinster’s last appearance in the European Cup final – irksome time spent watching Saracens, Toulon, Clermont and Racing duke it out.

Jonathan Sexton, Leo Cullen and Rob Kearney Wall-to-wall European Cup pedigree. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We had to rethink a lot of the things that we were doing. It clearly wasn’t good enough for us so we had to get back to the drawing board and work incredibly hard.

Going back to the drawing board meant re-thinking how resources were divvied up within the organisation and better man-managing players who want to play every week and who play a key role in pushing the team to the knock-out stage, only to bow out when the show-stopping games come along.

“Ultimately, it will be good for the club because it’s certainly had to focus a lot of minds for us to improve and get better. It’s nice to be back at this stage again.

“As Rob (Kearney) said, knowing what that is like just makes you want it again and again and again. The group, the experiences they’ve had coming off the back of the Six Nations just makes them want to do it again.”

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Sean Farrell

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