'Saracens is the ultimate test for us. Are we ready? It's hard to say'

Leo Cullen says his side are not favourites for tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final.

Cullen speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference.
Cullen speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference.
Image: Seb Daly

STANDARD-BEARERS FOR the last two seasons in Europe, Saracens arrive in Dublin for tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final to provide Leo Cullen’s side with the ultimate litmus test.

Having won six pool games from six to advance to the knockout stages as top seeds, the eastern province are favourites to come out on top in Sunday’s eagerly-anticipated shootout at the Aviva Stadium [KO 3.30pm, BT Sport].

But Mark McCall’s Saracens, the back-to-back defending champions, have dominated European rugby in recent times and go into this tie having not lost a quarter-final in the competition since 2011.

Locked and loaded following the return to fitness of Owen Farrell and George Kruis, Sarries will provide Leinster with the sternest of appraisals, who have watched on as the Premiership club have become the leading team on the continent.

The province’s 2012 victory over Ulster at Twickenham seems a long time ago now and there are only seven players remaining from that side, with Leinster’s last taste of success being the 2014 Pro14 title, which, by their own high standards and greedy ambitions, represents something of a famine.

But there is a renewed optimism around these parts that under this Cullen-Stuart Lancaster tenure, Leinster possess the credentials to reign supreme once again, much like they did during those golden years under Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt.

Semi-final defeat to Clermont last term still rankles with many of the squad, but Sunday is a real opportunity to send out a serious statement of intent.

“You think of the quality Saracens have and their record in the last couple of seasons, they’re the team we’re all trying to chase and aspiring to get to that level,” the head coach said.

“It is a challenge for us as they’re the team that we aspire to get to, to that level. A huge amount of work has gone into trying to get us back to this stage where we can actually take these teams on, it’s a great test for actually where we are in the development of this team that we have ourselves.

“It’s just about trying to get better and better and better. Is that going to be good enough for us this Sunday? We hope so. But we understand it’s a huge challenge as well.”

Cullen is at least boosted by the return of Ireland’s Grand Slam winners in fit and healthy condition, with Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Dan Leavy all named to start.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton is back for Leinster. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The challenge has been to reintegrate those players back into the systems as seamlessly as possible over the last six days and hope it will all come together on the day in front of a sold-out Aviva Stadium.

Leinster will also hope their home form holds firm, with the province winning their last eight Champions Cup games in Dublin, with those victories coming by an average margin of 25 points.

It will undoubtedly be a lot tighter than that on Sunday with this quarter-final match up being termed Ireland versus England mark two given that so many of the central figures — Sexton, Farrell, Ryan and Itoje — all featured in the Twickenham showdown a fortnight ago.

But Cullen knows Saracens — with many of the team that won back-to-back titles still in place — offer something different, often strangling their opponents before displaying a ruthless and clinical edge; they were the top points (205) and try (24) scorers in the pool stages.

“They play a strong, pressure game where they are happy for the scoreboard to go three, six, nine and put pressure on teams,” Cullen continued.

“They want teams to chase the game early against them which plays into their hands because they’re very, very strong defensively. They’re just a very efficient team, they don’t waste much energy in their own half.

“What they’re very good at is just the fundamentals of the game. So they’re very strong in the set piece, very strong with their exits.”

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As he looked down Saracens’ starting XV for Sunday, Cullen shifted the favourites tag onto the visitors’ shoulders, pointing to their record over the last two years to underline their pedigree.

“It is going to be a tough challenge,” he added. “Nobody is taken anything for granted here. I didn’t know we were favourites, I am surprised by that, because I would have thought Saracens were the favourites because they have won the tournament the past two years. What has changed from their end? Not a huge amount. So we have to be very, very good.

Leo Cullen Cullen has downplayed the favourites tag attached to his team. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“The players are unbelievably ambitious, especially coming off the back of where they have been over the last couple of months. That push on in the Six Nations, taking the next step, they have come back the same hungry players they were when they left. We qualified for the quarter finals against Glasgow and we then went away against Montpellier, made a number of changes, and that was important because you want to build depth for all the eventualities that may take place over the course of a season.

“And yeah, we would have loved to have played the quarter final the following weekend but we knew we couldn’t. We watched it unfold, and once we saw Saracens, we thought, whoa, Saracens, because that is the ultimate test for us.

“Are we ready? It is hard to say. We have tried to deliver a clear plan to the players, the players have taken it on board now, and we just need to go out and do it. They are hungry to do so, they want to succeed.”

The thing is nobody will know if this Leinster side, brimming with internationals, Grand Slam winners and exciting young players, is ready to make that next step until the final whistle tomorrow afternoon.

“That’s it, yeah,” Cullen agrees. “We try to prepare for all eventualities, all the scenarios and the unknowns that could happen in the game, so it’s just about giving the players as many tools as possible but my experience tells me that it’s virtually impossible to cover all the bases.”

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