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Cullen keeps foot on gas

THREE weeks, three titanic tussles. And the small matter of three European semi-finalists to boot. With the first round of this block of three games secured last weekend, Leinster's attentions now turn to an in-form Ulster side who have ploughed a path across Europe this year.

Last weekend's defeat by Connacht aside, the northern province have been in impressive form this year, a point not lost on Leinster captain Leo Cullen who knows only too well the challenge that they will pose.

Though the coveted home semi-final berth has been booked, momentum is an important aspect of the season's run-in and with three important victories in recent weeks, the province are determined to drive on over the next two tests.

"The mentality for us on Friday night and over these next few weeks is to just go for it," the 34-year-old second row reflected ahead of tonight's trip to Belfast.

"There's not that long left in the season and though some people might think that we can take the foot off the gas now that we've booked a home semi in the (PRO12) play-offs, there's no way that we're going to allow that to happen.

"It's great that we're in two semi-finals and there's obvious excitement amongst the squad because of that. The focus for us though, as it has always been this year, is on the imminent jobs. And we're not looking any further than Ulster. There's local pride to play for, as there always is in interpro' derbies. But for those who are selected this week, there's a massive incentive to lay down a marker ahead of Clermont."

Cullen nods to Ulster's impressive form this year and he believes that they have been one of the most consistent sides in Europe.



Talent

With world class foreign and domestic talent in their ranks, he knows that they will be similarly driven to build momentum leading into their own European semi-final in Dublin next weekend.

It should make for a thrilling chapter in what is the oldest of all the interprovincial derbies.

"Absolutely," the Wicklow man agrees. "Ulster are always tough up on their own turf. So the intensity of a game up in Ravenhill with a big crowd is always a big challenge. We played them over Christmas last year and we got off to a good start, with Seanie (O'Brien) getting over for two tries.

"So we're going to have to try and start strongly again and build on that foundation.

"But if you look at their squad this year, they have gone up another level and they've added some outstanding world-class overseas players, top internationals like Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble, with some really exciting local talent.

"The net result is that they're flying just now. They've a nice mix in there at the moment with youth and experience. It will be a tough game for us."

Cullen believes that the competition within his own squad has risen this year. The form of the likes of Damian Browne, Devin Toner and, latterly, Brad Thorn, supplemented by the likes of Mark Flanagan chomping at the bit to breakthrough, has helped get the best out of the lock unit.

Hindsight is a funny thing, but looking back he points to the Rugby World Cup as being a positive for the boys in the squad to become men while the front-line internationals were away.



Seized

Those same players, the Leinster captain asserts, have seized their chances and in doing so have helped to create a competitive environment.

"There's no doubting that the World Cup opened a few doors for some players," said Cullen.

"The nature of the calendar this season - with the unavailability of players during the Six Nations as well - meant that guys got opportunities and, credit to them, they took them.

"We're all pushing hard for selection and it's causing a few headaches for the coaches.

"As players each of us knows that we have to do something special each day in training and when we pull on the shirt.

"Our performances are analysed and scrutinised to the nth degree and we try our best to play right 'til the end.

"The fitness and medical team deserve a lot of credit for the fact that we have virtually a full squad to choose from, which isn't easy given the physical nature of the games that we're playing in.

"It's a testament to the squad that we keep that ruthless streak in matches going, even in games like last week when we had pushed pretty far ahead.

"Even though there were a dozen changes to the side for Edinburgh last weekend, the standards didn't dip and hopefully that will bode well for the last few weeks of the season.

"But we can't be complacent and we've spoken as a group about building a squad and bringing a high level of intensity to each game."

The seasoned competitor pauses because he knows of the greater challenges that await. And the battlelines will be drawn again tonight.


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