Wednesday 23 August 2017

Wembley way holds special sway for pumped-up Cullen

David Kelly

David Kelly

Leo Cullen will get the chance to fulfil a childhood dream he thought a rugby player could never possibly see come true when he treads on the sacred Wembley turf tomorrow.

Cullen remembers watching the build-up to the 1986 FA Cup final as much as the match itself, even if the result -- a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool -- nearly made him cry. Still, he wallowed in childhood idolatry during a pre-Murdoch era when live soccer was a rarity on TV, the eight-year-old gobbling up every bit of Everton's seemingly fascinating journey from team hotel to pitchside.

It is a journey he will recreate this evening for his team's final light training session and, for real, tomorrow afternoon as Leinster prepare to tackle hosts Saracens in the Heineken Cup.

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"It's great for me," Cullen gushes. "I've been to the old Wembley in 1996 for the Challenge Cup final and I was at the Ireland v Wales match a few years later, when I was in the Ireland U-21s.

"It has something special about it; it dates back to growing up as a kid. The FA Cup build-up on a Saturday, that excitement. It was before Sky so it was different. You didn't have as much Premiership hype. I'm very fortunate to get a run-out there at some stage."

Saracens have never lost at Wembley and number world champions South Africa amongst their four previous victims at the storied venue.

"I feel comfortable going there and the guys feel the same," says Saracens' enigmatic head coach Brendan Venter. "Last year we didn't feel it was an advantage, we felt it was a wonderful privilege. This year it will be much more like a home game.

"But it doesn't matter where our guys play, we pride ourselves on getting up for any match. We won't really have any worries about the pitch. It wasn't a problem for us last year, so if it's better this year, that's even better for us."

Leinster will get their first look at the ground this evening and, as he resumes goal-kicking duties, Jonny Sexton will be keen to familiarise himself with the venue as quickly as possible.

"We'll suss out the venue this evening," says skills coach Richie Murphy. "We have some second-hand information about the ground, but we'll discover more at the captain's run.

"We'll kick and get a much better feel of it, perhaps talk to the groundspeople as they'll have a better any idea than anyone. It's a big open pitch, the stands are far away, perhaps similar to Croke Park but not as big. We'll work tomorrow to find targets to aim at, in terms of goal-kicks and kicks to touch."

Cullen has piled the pressure upon the English side. Having succumbed in Clermont last week without picking up a point despite an ambitious display, Cullen knows they can't afford another lapse.

"With the pool being so tight, they need to win this week and they'll be under a certain amount of pressure to perform," he says. "This pool is so difficult, you need to get what you can from every game.

"We got the most we could last week and whatever way the game goes this week, we have to ensure we get as much out of it as possible. If it's a real dogfight, we'll take a one-point win. If we're struggling, we'll take what we can."

Venter appreciates the knife edge upon which his team must now perform. "Our philosophy is that every game is a must-win game for us," he says. "I never look ahead. I sometimes even forget who we are playing in the game after next. Every second I spend thinking about the next game is less time and energy I put into this game.

"Leinster are a very classy team. Sexton makes a big difference when he plays and they have so many internationals.

"I think Leo Cullen will be back but it is doubtful whether (Brian) O'Driscoll will play but we are preparing for him to play. He is a wonderful rugby player and my little boy was very disappointed when he heard O'Driscoll might not play. He really wanted to see him play. I said I don't mind watching him on another occasion.

"It is great that we're playing against teams like Clermont and Leinster, with all their stars. We will create things but we will need to finish. We need to take our points and then we will win. They will create things too and have a good defence. They are a classy outfit. Give them half a chance and they will score."

Saracens full-back Alex Goode calls Wembley their second home but Leinster know that there is no time for sightseeing. They need to be pitch perfect.

"Wembley will a fantastic occasion," says Murphy. "But when the ball kicks off, it's just another pitch."

Irish Independent

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