ALTHOUGH LEINSTER HAVE already sealed a home quarter-final berth, Leo Cullen says tomorrow’s final pool outing against Montpellier is a good litmus test for his side as they look to end their French drought.
The eastern province travel to the Altrad Stadium hoping to complete the perfect pool campaign having won five from five, but face their stiffest assignment to date in the form of a star-studded Montpellier outfit.
Vern Cotter’s side go into the sixth and final round of pool games with their European hopes hanging by a thread following a heavy defeat in Exeter last week, and know they need a bonus-point win on Saturday to stand any chance of progression.
The hosts will come firing out of the blocks and Cullen expects a backlash from the Top 14 side as they look to exact revenge for the narrow round one defeat to Leinster at the RDS back in October.
The Leinster head coach has used the opportunity to shuffle his pack and freshen things up after a busy Christmas and New Year period by making six changes in personnel, with Johnny Sexton being given the weekend off.
Such is Leinster’s strength in depth, their starting XV still contains an exciting blend of youth and experience with Rob Kearney, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, James Ryan and Dan Leavy all coming in.
“It’s good that we try and freshen things up, the games in Europe are very, very intense,” Cullen said, before the team’s departure this morning.
“We’ve made a few changes which is good for freshening the team and the squad is very competitive at the moment as well so it gives guys an opportunity and hopefully we can get as much as we possibly can from the game.”
While Leinster have done all the hard work in the pool, another point will ensure they progress through to the last eight as top seeds but Cullen is under no illusions of the task facing his side in the south of France.
As well as losing to Montpellier in last year’s pool stage, Leinster were also beaten by Clermont at the semi-final stage and needed a late try to salvage a draw from their trip to Castres, with their last win on French soil coming against that opposition back in October 2014.
And Cullen acknowledges the fact that if his side are to be considered serious contenders for this season’s competition, they must go away from home and beat sides like Montpellier.
“They’re a big physical team, very hard to play against,” the head coach continued.
“A lot of quality throughout and when they click they’re very, very dangerous. It’s important for us we manage the game on our terms and don’t get sucked into the way they want to play. It’s a great challenge as it’s always very tough going away to France where we don’t have a fantastic record in recent seasons so that’s been a focus.
“There is plenty of motivation in these games. With five wins it’s great but we want to kick on now as well. To be able to deal with the chaos that is there when you play in France. The crowd and they’re very, very physical in the way they play at home and it’s a very different environment to what we’re used to. It’s important we try and manage our way through that and think clearly.”
With the likes of Jordan Larmour, Byrne, James Lowe, Gibson-Park and Ryan still relatively unexperienced at European level, Cullen knows it will be a good learning curve for his squad.
“It’s a good challenge,” he adds. “A lot of young guys have come through who wouldn’t have experienced trips to France and it is different, a different assault on your senses. It’s a good chance for us this week to show where we’re at at the moment. Very tough challenge but one everyone is looking forward to it.”
Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud