LEINSTER travel to the Montferrand region of eastern France on a hiding to nothing. It’s December and the temperatures are plummeting with even the icicles seeking shelter, or so it seems.
Few are giving the province a chance of victory. Eight years ago it was a similar story, with few outside of the camp daring to dream of what would be a first plundering on French soil.
The historical symmetry is not lost on Leo Cullen. Now Leinster’s captain – and a Heineken Cupwinning leader at that – the Newtownmountkennedy man can reflect on that momentous evening and a few words spring to mind.
He talks about passion, nerve, energy and of the psychological cloud that was lifted by what was a stirring performance.
It’s interesting that lining up that day at hooker for AS Montferrand, as they were then known, was a man who would go on to play a significant role in Cullen’s development.
Richard Cockerill, the current Leicester Tigers coach, had been brought in by the French team to add a bit of bite in a pack who included the pugnacious Alexandre Audebert and were led by the wonderful Olivier Magne. With the exception of Cullen, of the current vintage still involved in Leinster only Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan and Brian O’Driscoll remain from that golden day.
Fond memories which offer the briefest of respite for the team as they prepare to face a side who went from under-achievers to the kings of France after knocking on the door for years.
Of course, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt played a key role in signing off his era as assistant coach by helping Les Jaunards lift their inaugural Bouclier de Brennus (French championship) after years acting as the bridesmaid, but Cullen admits the side they face this weekend will be an altogether different animal.
“The thing about going to play French teams, especially in France where they generally have such proud home records, is that they will throw the kitchen sink at you”, he reflected ahead of the Pool 2 showdown.
“And they will do real damage if you stand by and allow them to dictate play. So that’s the first test you face. “If you can hold your nerve in the opening spell and assert yourself early on then you can be successful.”
If not, Cullen stresses, the consequences can be damaging. In Leinster colours he has a 100pc record against AS Clermont Auvergne, as they’re known nowadays.
And for Leicester Tigers, where he enjoyed a successful two-year spell in his late 20s, he started in one win in the 2005/06 season inWelford Road while benching in the return fixture in the Stade Marcel Michelin, both of which were also won by his side.
It’s a positive winning record that few can share. Though mindful of the impending challenge for the visitors Cullen admits to be excited by the prospect of returning to a “magnificent stadium”, as he refers.
“The whole city is rugby mad and the stadium is the focal point of the city,” says Cullen. “You really get a sense that the club is a hugely important part of people’s everyday lives there and the passion that comes fromthe stands is something else.
“When we won that day over there (23-20) it was a big win for us. But it was so tight and the following week there was only a kick of a ball between the two teams when we won back in Donnybrook (12-9).
“So even then there wasn’t any sign of complacency. “Even though we defeated them in the Heineken Cup quarter final last year in the RDS, the game could have gone either way again.
“They came with the intention of playing that night and it shows there are fine margins whenever good sides face each other. Thankfully we came out on the right side of the result.”
The French champions, Cullen says, are an even better side now than the one who were edged 29-28 a little over eight months ago.
“You only have to look at their victory over Toulouse at the weekend,” he adds. “They went behind early but composed themselves and scored some excellent tries.
“I was impressed by their performances against Leicester and the Ospreys last year and their home record is second to none.
“Since winning the French title, they seem to have gone up a notch and with their budget and financial backing, they’re a serious prospect.
“They have a big forward pack with big ball carriers and great strength in depth. And in the likes of (Morgan) Parra and Brock James they have players who can kick points from anywhere on the pitch.
“So we know that any mistakes will be punished. “As a player, you want to be tested against the best teams in Europe and whenever these Heineken Cup fortnights come around there’s a special buzz because it’s not often that you play against French or English teams and it brings a fresh challenge.
“We know that we can create chances if we work hard, even though we are without a few players.
“You have to try and impose yourself and not sit back and invite pressure.”
The battle lines have been drawn. And Cullen and his charges need only look back for inspiration as they move forward.