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Leo Cullen sees 'traditional Leicester DNA' at heart of Tigers' revival

The Leinster boss is looking forward to coming up against his old club this weekend.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

LEO CULLEN HAS called for his Leinster team “to impose our own game” when they take on Leicester Tigers in their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final clash at Welford Road tomorrow.

The Tigers have an illustrious history in the competition but have fallen away from the top tier of European rugby over the last decade.

Having reached the quarter-final stages in 12 of the competition’s first 16 years, it has been six long seasons since Leicester last went this deep into the tournament.

However there is a sense the Tigers are on the rise again, the old heavyweights currently leading the Premiership table by four points, having finished 11th from 12 in both 2019 and 2020.

Under the guidance of head coach Steve Borthwick, they are a club who are beginning to look like their old selves. It’s a club Cullen knows well, of course, having spent two seasons there during his own playing days.

“It’s the traditional DNA of Leicester Tigers which is very, very strong fundamentals, a strong set-piece,” Cullen says.

“I know from my time there, I can still remember the Tuesday mornings and the work they put in. It’s based on hard work, their game. It always has been, they build a lot of their success on hard graft, as they would say.

They’re a very workmanlike team, at the moment they’ve brought in a fair bit of international star quality among some of the local guys they have there. They’ve a very strong kicking game in their half-backs with George Ford and Ben Youngs, around set-piece in particular. Their lineout drive has always been a huge part of their game, they’re a team that works hard, so there’s a lot to like about what they’re doing over there at the moment.”

Leicester are expected to lean into their power game tomorrow, an area in which Leinster have struggled across recent seasons in Europe. With that in mind, Cullen wants to see his charges front up physically while also not forgetting to play to their own strengths. 

“Bringing the right level of intensity and being able to impose our own game,” he continues.

“We have an understanding of the type of game that Leicester bring. They try to squeeze you so it is making sure that we don’t get too frustrated with some of that because we know they are going to kick a lot and they will try to be aggressive around the breakdown area.

“So it’s making sure that we get our own detail right because the interpretation of the referee is so key and around the ruck area in particular. Some of those calls, I often think there are supporters sitting in the stands wondering what way the arm is going to go with some of those calls so it is the interpretation of those calls and our guys figuring it out very early in the game.

johnny-sexton Johnny Sexton will captain Leinster in Leicester tomorrow. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“We touched on the set-piece battle and it’s about making sure we are on top in all of those areas of the game. We have an experienced front row, and experienced pack at this point in time.”

Cullen has welcomed back all his big hitters for the game, having left the bulk of his international contingent at home for the recent two-game United Rugby Championship to South Africa. Having last been crowned kings of Europe in 2018, this is a competition they are desperate to win again.

We were certainly frustrated the way Europe ended for us last season. We’ve got a group who have worked hard all year to get themselves into this situation, selection has been tough this week because a lot of good players have missed out as well, but that’s what you need if you want to be successful in the two competitions that we’re in, the top English and French teams are no different.

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“Leicester, if you look through their squad now, they’ve such good quality home-grown talent, international players – as in English international players – but then added to that is maybe a dozen players who have played for other international teams. So the quality that they have sprinkled across their squad is huge.

“It’s going to be a massive test for us because the model is slightly different, we bring through more local guys and home-grown guys and we’re lucky that a lot of guys have gone on and progressed to representing Ireland in recent seasons, hopefully we can draw on some of the experiences they’ve had this season and maybe in previous seasons as well.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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