©INPHO/Donall Farmer Clinging on: Leinster captain Leo Cullen and head coach Joe Schmidt.
# Heineken Cup
Season, not trophies, on the line for Leinster
“This is going to be a very, very tough ask for us,” concedes captain Leo Cullen ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Sandy Park.

BETWEEN THE QUESTIONS about Brian O’Driscoll, the Ireland captaincy and Jonny Sexton’s French connection, the focus briefly returns to the main task at hand and it becomes clear that Joe Schmidt does not expect an easy ride against the Exeter Chiefs.

In need of four tries and a bonus-point win just to sustain an already faint hope of qualification and cling on to their European crown for a little while longer, Leinster find themselves up against one of the 10 eliminated teams who will only be playing pride in the Heineken Cup this weekend.

Playing for pride? This Exeter team, marshalled by Limerick leader Tom Hayes, doesn’t know how to play any other way. “There’s a lot of other places I’d rather go than Sandy Park this Saturday,” Schmidt conceded at yesterday’s pre-match conference and it was no token platitude.

First, consider the direct evidence. Exeter could hardly have asked for a more daunting opening to their debut Heineken Cup campaign than an away trip to face the experts, winners of three of the last four tournaments, on their home patch in Dublin.

But they showed Leinster no respect that day and came within a late missed penalty from Dungannon fly-half Gareth Steenson of forcing a shock draw.

Then there are the second-hand reports, patched back through to Schmidt from his old friends in Clermont following last week’s 46-3 win against the Chiefs.

“They’d be one of the most consistently difficult teams to beat,” Schmidt added.

“Talking to some of the Clermont management this week, they found it very very tough. Possession was pretty evenly shared. Clermont have some exceptional individuals that can make something out of nothing and suddenly it’s difficult.

Exeter were very competitive in the game and probably should have scored at 20-3 down. It would have been 20-10 and anything could have happened. Again they were 12-10 up against Clermont before they got a yellow card in Sandy Park and that was the start of the slide for them that day.

The stats aren’t exactly encouraging for Leinster’s cause either. Sandy Park is Exeter’s fortress. They have only lost twice at home this season, against Clermont and in the Aviva Premiership against Northampton, and if you ignore the two defeats against the French club currently marauding across European rugby, they have only conceded three tries in the Heineken Cup.

How then are Leinster — the same Leinster side who seemingly couldn’t buy a try until, pinned and wriggling on the wall, they ran in five against Scarlets last week — going to come away with a bonus-point win?

“This is going to be a very, very tough ask for us but it’s an exciting challenge as well,” captain Leo Cullen said yesterday.

After those Clermont games we were literally clinging on with a chance of staying in the tournament. That chance maybe has improved slightly but there’s so many factors at play this weekend.

Earlier this week the players who met the media stressed that they cannot afford to think about the try count, that they need to concentrate on their fabled processes and systems and let the rest take care of itself.

But now, with their season on the line, there’s no hiding from the harsh reality of the numbers.

“It’s a knockout game I suppose, to put it like that,” Cullen said. “It’s not a final though, no. There’s no trophy at the end of it.”

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