The Final Four

'We'll be all the better for it': Leinster target big improvements for Toulouse

The next two weeks will be crucial for Leo Cullen’s side as they look to find their best form for a European semi-final.

CHAMPION SIDES FIND a way, and Leinster — far from their best — were able to ride their luck and dig deep to survive an almighty Ulster onslaught to keep their Heineken Champions Cup defence alive.  

Relief was Leo Cullen’s overriding emotion deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night as he reflected on a madcap game of rugby, one which ebbed and flowed and was utterly compelling from start to finish.

Luke McGrath and Jack Conan celebrate after the game Morgan Treacy / INPHO Jack Conan and Luke McGrath celebrate on Saturday evening. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The Leinster head coach’s pre-match concerns were well founded as Ulster arrived south intent on ripping up the script and that they very nearly did, the underdogs battling and rattling the defending champions.

But the eastern province not only showed the value in their depth chart, with Ross Byrne showing immense character to kick the winning penalty despite cramping up, but all of their big-game nous and champion mettle to chisel a way through to the semi-finals, where they will face Toulouse at the Aviva. 

“I just had the sense that it was going to be one of those days, that it was going to be on a knife-edge,” Cullen said. “Whether undercooked is the right word or not, we looked just, based on our performance last week [against Edinburgh] as well, we’re just not quite there at the moment.

“We have a little bit of time now before our first semi-final and it is nice that we have two semi-finals to look forward to but we just need to get better, look at improving our performance, which is what we always try to do.”

Key for Leinster now is the extended contact time they will have together as a unit, with the playing squad all as one from now until the end of the season, rather than the limited window of preparation they had building into Ulster.

With a Pro14 home semi-final already assured, the next two weekends will provide Cullen with an excellent opportunity to fine-tune those combinations and hand players valuable minutes as they gear up for a third meeting of the season against Toulouse on Sunday 21 April. 

Leinster welcome Benetton to the RDS in the Pro14 this Saturday, before hosting Glasgow Warriors the following week, and the head coach reiterated to his players that there are places up for grabs as the business end of the season approaches.

“At least we’ve had a game now,” Cullen continued. “I think the players will be all the better for it. We’ll get some quality training done over the next period. It will be important. We will try and manage the group well as we always try to do. 

“We do chop and change quite a lot and the guys are used to it. It is just how we manage ourselves, being smart about what we do on certain days. It is a great opportunity next week for our players, for whoever does play against Treviso, because it is all up for grabs.

Adam Byrne tackled by Stuart McCloskey Billy Stickland / INPHO Adam Byrne is tackled by Stuart McCloskey. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“It was mixed in terms of level of performance from individuals today. There’s a great chance there for guys that play next week.”

Although Dan Leavy suffered a serious leg injury on Saturday, and Josh van der Flier has already been ruled out for the rest of the season, Leinster will hope for positive updates on Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner this week. 

All three missed the quarter-final win over Ulster through injury and Cullen, if possible, will be looking to get them back out on the pitch in the coming weeks before those semi-final ties in Europe and the league.

“We’ll have a few guys that are currently in red injured that will be back in the next couple of weeks and getting those guys back will be key. It creates more competition,” Cullen adds.

“The group is different to last year, the mood is slightly different and we just have to embrace that for what it is. The group is still very hungry to be successful for lots of different reasons. They want to do special things together. It’s a bit different to this time last year because it was ‘can we actually go and do it?’ and then you go and do it and then it’s like ‘well, that felt pretty good, let’s go try and do it again.’

And then you get a game like today where it’s so close to slipping away from you. That’s the feeling you need to remember, that’s what it’s like when you lose. You’re gone and it’s a pretty horrible sensation.

“We’ve got a couple of guys who missed out today because of injury and they’ll come back into the mix as well. But the bigger thing is that we’re all together, that we’re actually training collectively together, understanding what it is we’re trying to do and how we get a good performance from the team.

“So it was a performance good enough to win today, but we’re a little bit off where we’d like to be.” 

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel