Leinster v Ulster a game Cullen dare not lose
Promising Pro12 progress must be matched by semi-final success against familiar foes
Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30
History supports Leinster optimism heading into tonight's Guinness Pro12 semi-final against their traditional May inferiors Ulster but it is the present which informs tension amongst their faithful.
Despite finishing atop the standings after the regular campaign, banking a home semi-final fixture from which they have never failed to emerge in the brief history of the play-offs, there is enough angst to justify nervousness in the bleachers.
Firstly, their opponents' scintillating form, running up four successive wins since falling briefly out of the play-off picture, as they have cut their attacking cloth in the absence of key ball-carriers.
The penultimate game was, of course, against Leinster, whose line-up and attitude will be wholly different tonight, but the nature of a 30-6 mauling in Belfast will have offered succour to the northerners, as much as it might have deflated the buoyancy of the home troops.
Leinster's defence has imploded of late just as they were starting to get things working at the other end of the field; despite two five-point hauls in three games, they have shipped nine tries in three matches after being particularly parsimonious all season in this competition.
The private suggestions from within the Ulster camp after that Belfast humbling - publicly, they expect Leinster to kick a lot this evening, with expected wind and rain imminent - were that Leinster offered "predictability" in attack.
That is some remove from the time four years ago today when Leinster were wallowing in one of the most complete performances ever seen in Europe, when they pummelled the same opposition in a European final.
Captain Isa Nacewa, asked if this might rile up his camp, responded simply, "Yes."
There is a feeling that Leinster are vulnerable as Leo Cullen attempts to end his maiden season with a trophy; the flies on the wall are ferrying whispers that the IRFU may seek to replicate what has happened in Munster and Ulster; ie the installation of a director of rugby.
Should the rookie respond with a league title in his first campaign, that would a mightily impressive rejoinder to any perceived criticism of a tenure that has been littered with obstacles.
Defeat, however, against a side that have always departed from here with their tales between their legs on the big occasion would be a brutal blow, regardless of their league status.
"I wouldn't mind having a stuttering season if it meant I finished top of the table," mused former Ireland international Maurice Field this week.
But with the stakes raised so high for the IRFU big noises that challenging in Europe is now more a financial and sporting priority than ever before, the memories of Leinster's limp campaign at the highest level have shadowed their steady progress a step below.
"You just have to look at our last outing against them," says Cullen of Ulster. "We were a long way off in certain areas. There were a lot of learnings for us in that game. It's how we adapt with the conditions with the same opponent, a few slightly different personnel involved, but we need to be a hell of a lot better.
"We've used a lot of players to get us into this situation where we've managed to get a home semi-final.
"We have really been focussed in trying to get to our ultimate goal which was a home semi-final so it's great to be here in the RDS in front of a sold-out crowd."
Leinster have not lost here since the dregs of Matt O'Connor's reign against the Dragons a year ago and they must have some sense of entitlement in this particular fixture given how they have lorded it over their rivals of late.
You have to go back to 2003 for Ulster's last meaningful success against their rivals, the quarter-final of the old Celtic Cup when they progressed after an extra-time 23-23 draw by dint of tries scored.
They have only won once here in 12 previous visits, a 22-18 win three seasons ago, losing a semi-final and final here; their overall record is not great either at this defining stage, having won just one of six play-off games.
Just as there is a sense that Leinster can always get the job done, there is a lingering perception that Ulster will find some way of messing it up.
The hunch is that both teams will approach tonight tactically as they did last time, with Leinster seeking to bully the Ulster eight, in which the selection of twin open-sides suggests they will seek to put width on their game in order to avoid submerging themselves in a forward quagmire.
Leinster had brief success in Belfast until indiscipline and attitude defeated them; Ulster thrived on a hard ground but struggled when the game tightened up.
Semi-finals, though, are normally tighter affairs and that may give the experience of Leinster the definitive edge in territory they know intimately.
"We went back to basics in our last game and it's what we needed to do," admitted Cullen. "Once again it comes back to play-off rugby, who can execute under pressure and who can do the basics best, and this is what we've building towards."
Leinster - I Nacewa capt; D Kearney, G Ringrose, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross, D Toner, M Kearney, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, P Dooley, T Furlong, R Molony, J Conan, L McGrath, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.
Ulster - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), R Lutton, P Browne, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy. Reps: R Herring, K McCall, A Warwick, R Diack, R Wilson, P Marshall, S Olding, D Cave.
ref - I Davies (WRU).
Leinster v Ulster, Live, TG4/BBc NI/Sky Sports, 7.45pm