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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 24 January, 2019

'The job's not done': Cullen focuses Leinster minds for another big week

The defending European champions are in a strong position to secure a home quarter-final, but there is still work to do.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS

THERE WERE SO many pleasing aspects of Leinster’s emphatic evisceration of Toulouse on Saturday afternoon for Leo Cullen and his coaching staff to take satisfaction from, but no sooner had the final whistle gone had attentions turned to their final assignment.

The eastern province haven’t always been at their best during this Heineken Champions Cup campaign, but it’s hard to remember as big a statement win than this under Cullen’s watch — and there have been a few in the last 18 months.

Andrew Porter celebrates with Adam Byrne after the game Leinster face Wasps in the final round of pool action. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Defying the loss of a raft of their expected starters, the manner in which those who came into the side stood up and performed was exceptional as they utterly dominated a previously unbeaten Toulouse side, who were stubborn and committed but completely overmatched.

In learning their lessons from last October’s round two defeat in the south of France, Leinster executed the gameplan to perfection as they not only suffocated Toulouse of possession, but worked tirelessly and relentlessly to remedy the deficiencies which cost them at the Stade Ernest Wallon.

Crucially, the bonus-point win — secured by Adam Byrne’s try six minutes from time — sees Leinster regain top spot in Pool 1 and head into next Sunday’s round six encounter against Wasps in Coventry three points ahead of second-placed Toulouse.

Cullen admitted afterwards that they had been ‘nervous’ about Saturday’s reverse fixture against Toulouse since that one-point defeat, even if he exuded calm and control ahead of kick-off despite the loss of key internationals, including their talisman and captain Johnny Sexton.

“I think I’d butterflies about this game for a long time, regardless who was going to be playing in it,” the head coach explained post-match.

“When we watched the round two game unfold, we knew it was going to be ‘we’ve a lot of work to do now’, it was like you get a second chance in the pool, but that’s it, really. That’s it.

There’s still a chance to progress after losing a game because we picked up a bonus point here against Wasps, at home, then a losing bonus point away in France, and as we talked about at the time, if you get a losing bonus point away in France, it’s considered a good point.

“But off the back of where we were, a lot of guys maybe weren’t so sure about Toulouse, and how good they would be.

“We’ve been nervous for a while, since literally that Toulouse game, in many ways, because of the threat of Bath, coming back off the November Tests, getting guys up to speed, and then getting through the inter-pros.”

Despite obvious pride in the players for the way they performed in front of a capacity RDS crowd, Cullen wasted little time in focusing minds ahead of their visit to the Ricoh Arena.

With qualification for the last eight virtually secured, the main prize of a home quarter-final is what’s on the line now, and Leinster will know come kick-off next Sunday afternoon what is exactly required of them to book an Aviva Stadium date in early April.

Leo Cullen during the press conference Cullen speaking at Saturday's post-match press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It was always going to be a huge game and we were nervous literally since that game because we knew that was coming,” Cullen continued. “Now we’re going to be nervous because it’s another huge game against Wasps.

“The job’s not done, people will talk ‘oh great performance,’ etc etc, but the job’s not done. So we’ve a hell of a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be which is top of our pool, then try and get as decent a seeding as you can, because you’re not only competing against your own pool, but other pools too, that’s an unusual dynamic.

You want to win the group so let’s go win the game against Wasps, that will be our first priority, trying to get as much out of the game and we’ll see where everyone sits after the weekend’s play.

As it stands, Saracens are the only side mathematically assured of a place in the knockout stages after five rounds of pool action, with Racing 92, Leinster and Edinburgh occupying the other home quarter-final berths.

After launching their title defence with a record win over Wasps in round one, Leinster will be expected to finish the job against Dai Young’s side, whose interest in the competition is long over having lost all five of their pool outings.

But history provides a cautionary tale for the province, as the pain of their 51-10 defeat in Coventry as recently as three years ago at the end of a miserable European campaign is never far from Cullen’s thoughts.

“There’s the threat they have in their squad, they’re on mixed form, at the moment, it’s fair to say,” he said of next week’s opponents. “They’d a good win against Northampton last week, you could see by the celebration at the end how much it meant to them, how much they were celebrating little wins in the game, and they’re trying to build that energy.

“You look at that team on paper, they’ve an unbelievable squad of top-end quality, we just need to prepare accordingly because we saw first hand ourselves over there that if you get it wrong you can come unstuck very badly.

So we’ll make a good plan, see what sort of players we have available and make some calls in terms of selection, and move on from there.

The one blot on Leinster’s horizon is the knee injury sustained by Luke McGrath on the hour mark on Saturday, as the scrum-half was caught awkwardly in a ruck and went down in considerable pain.

Cullen confirmed afterwards that the 25-year-old will have a scan to determine the extent of the damage, but with the start of the Six Nations just three weeks away, McGrath’s fitness will be a concern for Joe Schmidt.

“It would be a cruel blow for him [to miss the Six Nations], but we’ll see how it unfolds,” Cullen added.

“We’ll get him assessed. I’m only speculating really at his stage. We’ll get him scanned at the start of the week and make a plan from there.”

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Ryan Bailey

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