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Leo's wary of wild animals

YOU know the joke. Zebre is one 'vowel' away from, or the Italian translation for, exotic donkey (zebra).

It certainly looked that way at the start of the season when they were given a harsh introduction to life in the Rabodirect PRO12 League.

The Dragons (37-6), Connacht (30-17) and Edinburgh (41-10) all had their way with them. It made for an ugly picture -- three losses, no points, not even in defeat.

Since then, there have been better days, most notably in their last three appointments. They were choked 22-13 away to the Scarlets, edged out 27-25 by Ulster - they scored four tries in that one - and squeezed 14-7 by Cardiff.

Leinster captain Leo Cullen could not cast an arrogant eye on the newcomers. This is where his deadpan gaze can come in quite handy.

"They are a new team and they are certainly an unknown quantity to us. They have a new coach that I have never come across before," said Cullen.

"It is very hard to form a club, form identity overnight. It is going to take them time, for sure. But, they are getting better every week."

Italian rugby was thrown into a state of flux last season when it was signposted that Aironi would be disbanded. Eventually, Zebre stepped into the breach as Italy's second club in the PRO12.

"Last year, we played Aironi at home. It was an absolute dogfight. I remember they just really got into us. Give a team like this an inch, coming to Dublin with nothing to lose, they will be out to make life as uncomfortable as possible.

"We need to be ready for that. We need to match their physicality and we need to concentrate on making sure we get our own patterns exactly right, which is difficult considering the preparation we've had."

The distance Zebre have travelled in such a short time should not be underestimated. They have improved from little more than a rabble to an organised, motivated outfit.

"At the start of the season, you were kind of like, 'Maybe, these guys aren't up to much'.

"But in their last three games, they've been very, very competitive. You just need to treat these teams with respect," voiced Cullen.

The Newtownmountkennedy second row was quick to use the competitive nature of Italy over the stretch of the November international window to support his opinion of Italian rugby players.

"You saw the Italians at the weekend. They were a kick away from drawing the game against the Australians. It was a pretty kickable kick. They should have got a result that day," he said.

"Even you hear some of the All Blacks coming out of that game against Italy saying it was the most physically demanding game they had played in quite a while.

"You have to take things like that on board. They are physical guys. They are confrontational up front. They're dogged. They'll make life difficult for us.

"If you allow teams like that into the game, it becomes more difficult because they grow in confidence. They start smashing into things.

"If we move them around a little bit, we can do things on our own terms. That is what we are more concerned about.

"We just need to worry about ourselves, make sure we bring the intensity we had for the first 40 minutes we played against Cardiff as against the intensity in the second 40. That is the sort of level we want to get to."

The process of reintegration of Ireland internationals and a clutch of injured players makes continuity and consistency elusive.

"It is about getting everyone moving in the right direction. This week is very much about focusing on ourselves," insisted Cullen.

"If we get a lot of our own stuff right, play with intensity, then we can be a match for any team, regardless of who we are playing against."