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Dublin: 13 °C Sunday 19 May, 2019
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Leinster drive for five but Saracens have score to settle in Newcastle

Leo Cullen praised James Lowe but said there is still a decision to make with his ‘non-European players’.

THE LAST TIME Leo Cullen visited St James’ Park, he was there as a spectator to watch Newcastle beating Crystal Palace in the 2002 FA Cup.

Leinster’s scheduled game against the Newcastle Falcons had been postponed due to cold weather, so Cullen and his team-mates headed to the football to while away a relaxing afternoon.

Leo Cullen and Guy Easterby before the game Cullen with Guy Easterby on Sunday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The now Leinster head coach’s second visit to the stadium for a game – on 11 May when his team face Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup final – is going to be a very different story. 

The Premiership side showed their class in taking Munster apart on Saturday, a day before Leinster impressed in beating Toulouse in the second semi-final, and Mark McCall’s men feel they have a score to settle with Cullen’s men.

Last season’s 30-19 defeat to Leinster at the quarter-final stage, after they had won the 2016 and 2017 tournaments, rankles greatly with this Saracens group. 

So while Leinster have the motivation of chasing a record fifth title next month in Newcastle, Cullen knows how ferociously fired-up Sarries will be.

“I think when a team loses in a competition when they’ve won it previously, it just drives greater desire usually,” said Cullen on Sunday. “That’s what my experience would be.

“Particularly when you’ve got a group of players that has generally stayed together over the course of a good number of seasons now, you can see that some of them are pretty ambitious.

“They’re going to be a real handful but what would you expect at this stage of the competition. They were seeded number one, so they’re in the final for a reason. They’ve probably been the most consistent team in the competition so far.”

Cullen dismissed the suggestion that Ireland’s defeat to England in the opening round of this year’s Six Nations – when many of the same players were involved – will have any relevance to this European club decider.

Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong celebrate Leinster will include many Ireland stars. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

And on the topic of whether this final is era-defining for two clubs who have won the most recent three versions of this competition, Cullen simply said, “That’s probably for someone else to decide.”

As ever, Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will hone in on the rugby itself, looking to build a game plan that negates the strengths Sarries showed against Munster.

With that in mind, Cullen warned that “it’s hard chasing the game against them” and stressed the need for Leinster to come out of the blocks firing.

It seems likely that James Lowe, the strong-finishing Kiwi wing, will play some part in that bid to start strongly, with his performance against Toulouse in Sunday’s semi-final win seemingly ending the ‘three into two’ debate around himself, Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park fitting into the two ‘non-European player’ spots allowed.

“James is another guy who loves the big stage,” said Cullen. “He finished his try well, like he did for that try against Saracens in the quarter-final last year, makes a break that leads to the try at the start of the game [against Saracens last year].

“He is a big game player. He comes up with big moments. I thought he went well. He’s worked hard to get back, had to deal with some disappointment over the course of the campaign as well with some selection calls that went against him. He is showing some good resilience, James.”

And yet, Cullen said he will keep his options open and potentially bring Gibson-Park back in instead of Lowe or the influential Fardy.

“We’ll see how everyone is and comes through over the next couple of weeks. We’ve got a game against Ulster on Saturday as well, so guys have an opportunity to put their hands up. If guys go well, we’ll wait and see.”

Scott Fardy celebrates after the game Scott Fardy was influential again on Sunday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Whatever the case, next month’s final in Newcastle should be a true epic as the two best clubs in the European game clash.

“Hopefully, we will get a huge crowd to Newcastle,” said Cullen. “The memories that players have driving into the ground today, seeing the blue flags everywhere.

“I can vividly picture a sea of blue as we drive in under the stadium in Bilbao [before last year's final]. They are amazing days for players to be involved in. It’s this weight of support, this momentum, when you think everyone is behind you. 

“It’s powerful stuff. Players feed off that and they understand what it means to not just our group, but to lots of other people as well. We’ll do everything we can.”

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Murray Kinsella

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