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'Everyone knows what's at stake - a sloppy performance opens the door for somebody else'

Opportunity knocks for some of Leinster’s fringe players this afternoon, but Leo Cullen demands the same standards as last week.

Deegan and Daly: two players who will get the chance to impress against Zebre today.
Deegan and Daly: two players who will get the chance to impress against Zebre today.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

FROM THE GLAMOUR of a big European quarter-final and everything that it brings, comes the relative serenity of a Saturday afternoon home game against Italian opposition.

You’ll be hard pressed to convince anyone that the visit of bottom-of-the-table Zebre, the Pro14′s perennial wooden spooners, is as significant as last weekend — it’s not — but in terms of maintaining momentum, today acts as a meaningful stepping stone as we reach the business end of the season.

Leo Cullen tried his best to build the Italians up in yesterday’s pre-match press conference, referencing their new-found ambition under Michael Bradley and aggressive line speed in defence, but that was merely an exercise in focusing minds and ensuring there is no let-up in standards from his troops.

To that end, the Leinster head coach has been able to retain five of the players who started the emphatic defeat of Saracens down the road at the Aviva Stadium, with Cullen’s side containing an exciting blend of youth, experience and players desperate to stake their claim for selection.

Opportunity knocks, then, for several in blue over the next fortnight when Zebre and Treviso visit Dublin but there is also the small matter of finishing the job in the Pro14 by securing top spot in Conference B and with it automatic progression through to the semi-final stage.

After defeat to Ospreys last time out, Leinster have had to wait until this round 19 fixture to assure themselves of a place in the play-offs and victory today would do that, and, more pertinently, tighten their grip on top spot.

“You want to be at home for play-off games ideally,” Cullen says. “For us trying to control that is key — we’d rather be at home in the RDS or Aviva, the support we get there is unbelievable.”

Leinster’s only home defeat since December 2015 was last year’s Pro12 semi-final reversal to Scarlets, who they, of course, face in the Champions Cup semi-finals and are currently three points ahead of in the Conference B standings.

All eyes are on that last four showdown with Wayne Pivac’s side at the Aviva Stadium on 21 April, with the challenge now for Cullen and Stuart Lancaster to carefully manage resources between now and then, ensuring key players get enough rest but also maintain match fitness and sharpness.

The likes of Johnny Sexton, Sean Cronin, James Ryan, Scott Fardy, Isa Nacewa, Jack McGrath and Joey Carbery were given this week off but are likely to come back in for Treviso, while many of the senior players involved today will enjoy their down time next week.

“You’re making those assessments all the time,” Cullen says of deciding which players to use and which players to rest.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Huge amount of planning goes into it, when the players are away, you try to plan without the 15/16/17 players, and you’re trying to pick up points, so you’re not scrambling to get into the position you want to be in.

“Then you’re assessing all the while, what shape guys are in, the injured guys, when to bring them back in.

“It’s not an exact science, but you’re always trying to learn from any mistakes in the past. You’re trying to learn from all the experiences, positive and negative.”

Leinster have got most things right this season and as the province continue to battle hard on two fronts, Cullen is seeking to strike the right balance to give the province the best chance of success in both the Pro14 and Champions Cup.

This week, you feel, will be as much about mental concentration as anything else with the heights reached against Saracens almost impossible to reproduce again, while two straightforward games on paper may, in theory, engender an element of complacency.

Cullen agrees: “To a certain extent yes it’s a mental challenge, for us it’s concentrating on our Leinster standard of performance, what’s acceptable from the players themselves, they’ll go out and set that standard.

“If we’re sloppy, we’ll get into trouble. Same as Benetton next week, they’re pushing hard to qualify for Europe the moment. Everyone’s got something to play for.

“Players know, they should know, if they go out and give a sloppy performance from an individual point of view, somebody gets an opportunity next week and they go well — they’re potentially in pole position to play in the semi finals. Everyone knows what’s at stake.”

All eyes on Scarlets, and while Cullen’s team is pretty much set in stone, there are still a number of positions — particularly in the backline — where striking performances may just force management into a rethink.

With Jordan Larmour facing a race against time to be fit for Scarlets, the number 23 jersey appears to be up for grabs with Rory O’Loughlin getting his chance from the start today while Barry Daly and Adam Byrne might fancy their chances of pushing their case for selection.

O’Loughlin is joined in midfield by Conor O’Brien while Ross Byrne, having fallen down the pecking order for Saracens due to the return of Sexton and Carbery, will have something of a point to prove outside scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.

Devin Toner Devin Toner captains Leinster for the first time today. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

With a strong tight five, including Healy, Furlong and captain Toner, there is a big chance for Josh Murphy — mightily impressive in Leinster’s win over Munster in the B&I Cup last weekend — to really put his hand up in the back row with Josh van der Flier, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock all struggling with injury.

The same can be said for Max Deegan, who came off the bench for his European debut last week, as he starts at number eight with Dan Leavy completing a dynamic-looking and powerful Leinster back row.

“Everyone knows the window is there now,” Cullen added. “The window’s are starting to close as well. The players understand every time they go out there, it’s their chance to show what they can do. The players pick the team at the end of the day.”

Indeed they do.

Young Gavin Mullin, the son of former Ireland and Lions centre Brendan, has played his way onto the bench and, according to Cullen, has overtaken several players — Noel Reid, perhaps? — in the pecking order.

The UCD man is in line for his senior debut off the bench and if he does so, Mullin will become the 53rd different player Leinster have used this season, a remarkable number which is further testament to the work of the province’s academy.

Peter Dooley, Vakh Abdaladze, Peadar Timmins and Ciaran Frawley — all products of the system — will hope to get more minutes under their belt alongside some of the club’s senior players.

The challenge for them, including Toner, who captains his home province for the first time on the occasion of his 213th appearance, is driving standards and ensuring those younger players build on the performance of last week.

“It’s about driving that Leinster standard, and making sure the younger lads do it,” Toner says. “Hopefully they’ve seen how the senior lads go about our work in weeks like this, it is the test of how professional you can be, get into the right mindset and maintain those standards.

“It was good for me getting the nod as skipper, it refocused my mind about the standard I need to bring.”

Leinster:

15. Barry Daly
14. Adam Byrne
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Conor O’Brien
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner (captain)
5. Mick Kearney
6. Josh Murphy
7. Dan Leavy
8. Max Deegan

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Peter Dooley
18. Vakh Abdaladze
19. Ross Molony
20. Peadar Timmins
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Gavin Mullin

Zebre:

15. Matteo Minozzi
14. Gabriele Di Giulio
13. Giulio Bisegni
12. Faialaga Afamasaga
11. Mattia Bellini
10. Carlo Canna
9. Marcello Violi

1. Andrea Lovotti
2. Oliviero Fabiani
3. Dario Chistolini
4. Leonard Krumov
5. George Biagi (captain)
6. Valerio Bernabò
7. Jacopo Sarto
8. David Sisi

Replacements:

16. Roberto Tenga
17. Andrea De Marchi
18. Cruze Ah-Nau
19. Eduardo Bello
20. Luhandre Luus
21. Guglielmo Palazzani
22. Serafin Bordoli
23. Giovanbattista Venditti

Referee: Ian Davies (WRU).

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Ryan Bailey

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