Tuesday 25 June 2019

Cullen has 'clearer focus' as Leinster control destiny

Leinster 42 Bath 15

Adam Byrne wins the aerial duel ahead of Bath’s Darren Atkins in the build-up to Leinster’s fourth try. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Adam Byrne wins the aerial duel ahead of Bath’s Darren Atkins in the build-up to Leinster’s fourth try. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Take out that new calendar and put a ring around the weekend of January 12. It may have the atmosphere-sapping handicap of a lunch-time Saturday kick-off, but the round five clash of the tournament's most successful clubs is shaping up as a season-defining game for both teams.

They may both emerge from Pool 1 regardless, but these long-standing European giants know the landscape well enough to know the value of a home quarter-final.

All four of the Irish provinces face crunch games that weekend, but Leinster served a reminder on Saturday that they remain the most likely of any to make it to Newcastle in May.

The round two defeat in Toulouse removed their wiggle-room in their quest for back-to-back titles, but they always retained control of their destiny and a win of any hue in their round five home game will mean they go to Wasps for the final game top of the pool.

Having struggled away to Toulouse and Bath, the champions returned to the comfort of the Aviva Stadium and had the bonus point secured by half-time in impressive style.

Earlier in the day, Toulouse's 42-27 win over Wasps had put it up to the Irish province, who were seven points behind at kick-off.

Byrne celebrates with team-mates Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour after scoring Leinster's fourth try. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Byrne celebrates with team-mates Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour after scoring Leinster's fourth try. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Leo Cullen was satisfied by the improvements after a difficult outing at the Rec a week previous, but already his focus was beginning to switch to the big one after Christmas.

"Toulouse have been going very well at home so we know there is a good chance," the Leinster head coach said.

"Wasps have a lot of injuries at the moment so we knew that was a possibility that (result) would take place and then you got it confirmed.

"The conditions, it is very easy to get sidetracked by some of those things you actually can't control.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and his heir apparent Andy Farrell watch from the stands. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and his heir apparent Andy Farrell watch from the stands. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"The weather wasn't actually as bad as we thought it was going to be in the first half, it is horrific there at the end of the game.

"I was glad we got tries on the board early in the game, but it was going to be difficult to try and chase them because as the game went on it became very hard to play, so the guys were very clinical in taking opportunities when they came along, controlled the game pretty well.

"We knew where we wanted to play the game and we were just better in the contact area all around, on both sides of the ball also.

"It was important we stay in touch because it was always going to be difficult to get out of the pool.

James Wilson kicks a penalty for Bath. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
James Wilson kicks a penalty for Bath. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"We are in a slightly better position, we'll see how the other pools sit, but for us it is simple focus. It seems to be just go out and win two games and hopefully that's enough for us to top the pool.

"With that there is still a couple of dynamics there, as we know, it is not straightforward with the bonus points, but at the moment there is a slightly clearer focus."

Although they conceded an early breakdown penalty that led to James Wilson opening the scoring, Leinster's work in contact was much improved after they struggled under pressure from Sam Underhill and Francois Louw last week.

It quickly became clear that the home side were on it as they capitalised on a mid-storm interlude to score their four tries before the break. When they came out for the second-half the heavens had re-opened.

They were a joy to watch, opening up Bath with their clever inter-play between backs and forwards and bullying their visitors in the physical stakes.

Garry Ringrose escapes the tackle of Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie during Saturday’s Champions Cup clash. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose escapes the tackle of Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie during Saturday’s Champions Cup clash. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Cullen said he took no particular satisfaction from it, but the three players he brought into the team scored tries.

It was Jack Conan who was first off the mark as he broke Jamie Roberts' tackle to race home after a neat pass from Tadhg Furlong to Johnny Sexton.

Man of the match Rory O'Loughlin was next up as Sexton worked a wrap around on Garry Ringrose to put Jordan Larmour clear and he found the centre on his shoulder. James Lowe's opportunism earned a third with a tap and go that caught Bath napping, before Adam Byrne brilliantly beat Darren Atkins to collect Johnny Sexton's cross-kick and score before half-time.

Louw and Underhill scored for Bath, who battled gamely, but as the conditions worsened and Cullen rolled his bench the performance grew less fluid and Leinster had to make do with the two tries from Dan Leavy and Jamison Gibson-Park.

They face all three of their provincial rivals before the Toulouse match and the coach will use his squad before reassembling his big guns.

"We talked about trying to keep a settled look about the team for these two games," Cullen said of the back-to-back European games. "We will chop and change a little during this sequence of games, the three games, and give guys a proper opportunity. They are all working hard for each other behind the scenes. We always talk about this, the opposition team at training.

Performance

"The level they bring to the week quite often is hugely important in terms of the actual performance of the 15 guys on the field at the weekend.

"Guys applied themselves really well this week. They brought a good edge to training and there were guys pissed off that they were not involved over the last two weeks and some of those guys will get a chance next week against Connacht.

"There was an amazing crowd out there today and I believe we've got a couple of big crowds for the Interpro games, as well for the one in the RDS and Thomond is sold out as well on the 29th which is great.

"We will play the Interpro games in front of full houses and that leads us into Toulouse and trying to get something out of Wasps the week after and Scarlets the week after that. Then we can have a break!"

It certainly promises to be a hectic period. Leinster won seven out of seven this time last year and if they can repeat that trick they'll have put themselves in with a realistic chance of repeating their historic season.

Leinster - J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose (N Reid 71), R O'Loughlin, J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 61), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 61); C Healy (E Byrne 54), S Cronin (J Tracy 54), T Furlong (A Porter 46); D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 69); D Leavy, J van der Flier (R Ruddock 44), J Conan

Bath - R McConnochie; S Rokoduguni; J Willison (D Atkins 21), J Roberts, C Vuna; J Wilson (A Davies 71), W Chudley; J van Rooyen (N Catt 48), T Dunn (J Walker 54), H Thomas (M Lahiff 54); D Attwood, C Ewels (E Stooke 70); T Ellis, S Underhill (M Garvey 9-19 HIA), F Louw

Ref - P Gauzère (FFR)

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