Leinster hoping past glories can ignite challenge
Published 15/04/2015 | 02:30
European semi-final week is a familiar feeling to almost everyone at Leinster headquarters, not least Leo Cullen.
This season is his first approaching the do-or-die last four as a coach, but he played in seven last-four encounters in the Heineken and Challenge Cups during his stellar playing career.
The difference this week is that nobody is giving the three-time champions a chance when they take on the holders Toulon on Sunday.
Nothing about Leinster's season suggests they can formulate a game-plan to oust the interstellar cast assembled by millionaire Mourad Boudjellal in Marseille, with most observers recalling last year's quarter-final between the two sides in which Leinster crashed to a 29-14 defeat as a reference point.
Along with the rest of the coaching staff, Cullen has pored over the tape of the Stade Felix Mayol clash but the mood around the fixture is bringing up memories of their first European triumph in 2009 and their semi-final win over then-champions and hot-favourites Munster at Croke Park.
"Leinster have been in this position before where we were really struggling to deliver the goods at this tail end of the season when it came to the knockout games, quarters or semis," he recalled.
"I just think back to 2009 going into that semi-final. I was doing the press beforehand and no-one gave us a chance. It was a very similar feeling to what it is today and I think guys appreciate that.
"At least the guys now know that if you execute in a certain manner in the game then you will get a positive outcome. Back then we were just being written off all the time and had nothing to cling onto because we didn't have a history of producing the goods on the big day.
"Listen, it's an enormous challenge for guys and that's why they come to work every day. They're in the last four teams in Europe now so it's going to be tough regardless of where you are.
"It doesn't come much tougher for sure. Going to Marseille against the current champions of the last two years.
"It's a great challenge, I'd love to be one of the players now going into the game. they're the lucky ones I guess, aren't they?"
Leinster's last big knockout win in France came in 2012 when Joe Schmidt masterminded a narrow victory over Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux in one of the Heineken Cup's most memorable days.
Of the team that played then, Cullen is among five high-profile players no longer available to Matt O'Connor for selection this weekend.
The coach has come in for vociferous criticism as a result of his team's poor league form, style of play and inability to score tries in big games, but Cullen says it won't matter a jot if Leinster get over the line on Sunday.
Recalling the fear factor that helped drive their big performance when beating Munster back in 2009, Cullen said that there were different dynamics at play in the Cote d'Azur.
"Toulon pose so many challenges so it's just making sure we have a real understanding of the threats they pose both when we have the ball and they have the ball," he said.
"They're a dangerous team. With the 30 internationals they have, it's not a level playing field, is it, realistically? Because the resources they have are not the same as what we have.
"We have to make the best of what we've got, and that's what we're trying to do. We're in a semi-final and it's been a little bit ugly along the way getting to this point.
"But we're here and we've got a crack at it. It's just important that guys are going into the game with confidence that if they execute the plans then we will see the opportunities.
"A lot of the guys were down there last year in Toulon in the Stade Felix Mayol which is their actual home, so we've almost got that kind of, straight away, review process to look back on and see what went well there and what didn't and what could we do better.
"It's trying to improve on what we did last year. We hung in there pretty well for the first 40 minutes and went in at half-time 6-6.
"We didn't quite execute the couple of opportunities that we did get, so it's just important that we are really clinical when we get those opportunities. "
Hooker Sean Cronin is certainly full of belief about what his side can achieve if they can find the performance that has eluded them all season.
The Limerick native conceded that the team need a landmark display, saying: "Individually and collectively, some lads are going to have to play the best they've played this season, in a few seasons, if we are going to come anyway close to getting a result."
But he says that the legacy of Cullen's teams can help drive that performance.
"Well look at the squad we have, look at the players there ... We've gone to France and won before in massive games," he said. "You know they might have star quality, but so do we. So I think we'd back ourselves there. We've got some tremendous players, we've got some guys coming back who had game time against Bath and are still trying to integrate back in terms of getting used to the systems and the way that Matt wants us to play.
"So we've confidence in ourselves. It probably is going to take one of our best games in a few seasons to get a win. Well, you have to have belief, I suppose. We have a few key words this week, belief and desire, and intensity would be another one.
"I know they're easy words to say and actually bringing them into action is the tough part but we have to have a bit of belief in ourselves.
"Yeah, they are an awesome side and they deserve huge respect, they are two-times champions going for a third.
"So we're under no illusions how tough it's going to be and the atmosphere and the intensity that they're going to bring is something you'd look forward to, but it's going to be tough."
Tough would appear to be an understatement, but it is clear from the public utterances from Leinster's camp that they are determined to give it a go.
When they cross the white line, Cullen will have the unusual experience of watching from the stand, his job largely done. He hopes he'll have done enough.