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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 18 May 2021
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Cullen's Leinster take another big step forward after laying down their credentials

“There is still lots of things in the performance we can get better at, that is one of the exciting things.”

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

A VICTORY BUILT on defensive resolution as much as attacking incision, this was another notable statement of intent from Leo Cullen’s impressive Leinster, and a performance which must rival many of their previous best in European competition.

Jack McGrath speaks to his teammates in the huddle after the game Jack McGrath speaks to his Leinster team-mates after yesterday's quarter-final win. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Billed as an afternoon of truth for this side, Leinster fronted up and not only dethroned the defending champions but blew them away with an all-round display which further underlines the exciting progress they’ve made under Cullen and Stuart Lancaster over the last two years.

Saracens were always going to provide a rigorous examination of Leinster’s credentials, leading Cullen to label this quarter-final tie the ‘ultimate test’, and while the hosts were stretched at various stages during the first half, they weathered the storm before producing a level of thrilling rugby which the holders were simply unable to contend with.

Not quite the white-knuckle ride Munster and Toulon conjured, but Leinster were utterly clinical during a 20-minute period after the break to pull clear and book their place in the semi-finals, completing another memorable weekend for Irish rugby.

“There is still lots of things in the performance we can get better at, that is one of the exciting things,” Cullen said afterwards. “That’s one of the first things as coaches we will try and focus on.

“It is important there because there is a ‘Leinster way’ as you call it, a way you want to do things, and, yeah, it takes time to bring some of the younger players through, which we have talked about.

“So, they are shining at this stage, which is fantastic, and dealing with a hell of a lot between international and European experiences over the last few seasons as well.”

This morning’s review session will make for pleasant viewing overall, with the collective effort in both attack and defence only exceeded by outstanding individual contributions, most notably from Dan Leavy and James Ryan while the pack bullied Saracens in nearly every facet to lay the perfect platform.

A fast start was important and while Leinster ought to have settled after Garry Ringrose’s early try, Saracens showed all their pedigree by gaining a foothold to keep in touch through Owen Farrell’s boot. They enjoyed possession and territory, but it boiled down to Leinster’s ability to take their opportunities.

That third quarter was as impressive as you’re likely to see, with the hosts changing the angle of their attack regularly, adding variety to their play, and scoring two tries through man of the match Leavy and James Lowe. 17 unanswered points settled it.

“It is just another step,” said Cullen, not getting carried away, fully aware that having negotiated the group stages and now the first knockout round with a flawless record his side are still only back to where they got to 12 months ago.

James Lowe celebrates his try James Lowe scored Leinster's third try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Experience is a big thing, though, and this Leinster team — with a mix of youth and links to the teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012 — have become a consummate winning machine, determined to add to Ireland’s Grand Slam success and end the province’s four-year wait for silverware.

Their propensity to deliver when it matters was again evident yesterday when they won the big moments, with Cullen hailing the defence, pointing out ‘that it wins championships’, as Leinster worked ferociously around every blade of the Aviva Stadium pitch, hitting rucks like men possessed.

“Only time will tell,” the head coach said when asked if he feels they have progressed.

“Trying to manage the group is important. Keeping guys fresh as possible so they can give the best account of themselves. Some of them are coming off a long season so even that win for the A team on Friday night [in the B&I Cup] is important. It keeps everyone going, fully motivated.

“We will probably chop and change the team over the next couple of weeks with Zebre and Treviso just making sure we are staying competitive because there are other guys that missed out today that would love to be out there. Making sure the group stays competitive that is important.”

Either way, Leinster are building up a serious head of steam and now enter the business end of the campaign with a great chance of achieving something special, with their interest still strong in both the Champions Cup and Pro14.

Attention will momentarily turn to the league with the two Italian clubs visiting the RDS over the next few weekends, with those games providing Cullen with a chance, as he said, to give guys an opportunity to stake their claim ahead of the semi-final against Scarlets.

Leo Cullen during the post match press conference Cullen speaking after yesterday's win at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

For now they’ll take stock and hope Sunday’s stunning win hasn’t come at a great cost, with the physical nature of the contest evident by the way Isa Nacewa hobbled in and out of the press conference, or by Dan Leavy’s nasty black eye.

Bumps and bruises more than anything, but there is concern over Luke McGrath after the scrum-half — only just back from a knee injury — went over on his ankle and was forced off, while Johnny Sexton suffered a dead leg and Fergus McFadden sustained a bang to his neck.

As for Sean O’Brien? ”He’s not a million miles away,” Cullen smiles.

He could yet be back for Scarlets in three weeks, although Leinster are doing alright without him.

Bilbao in May. They can start to dream.

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Ryan Bailey

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