Leo Cullen: Guys are p*****d off with a point to prove
As Leo Cullen laid bare the potential pitfalls that Leinster face this weekend, the mind wandered back to the 2012 Heineken Cup quarter-final when Ulster stunned Munster at Thomond Park.
The Leinster head coach addressed the concerns over the form of some of his key men, their lack of recent playing time in a blue jersey, the fact that Ulster will not fear playing play at the Aviva Stadium in a knockout game and it wasn't long before Cullen brought up the northern province's famous 22-16 win seven years ago as a cautionary tale.
The bookies have already installed Leinster as 15-point favourites, which will all play into Ulster's hands in that they will relish travelling to Dublin as firm underdogs.
Then when you consider that several Ulster players who once lined out for Leinster will be desperate to prove a point to their former employers, you begin to understand Cullen's concerns.
"I think it probably makes it harder because they know us very well," Cullen warned.
"Marty (Moore) and Jordi (Murphy), in particular, spent all last year being in and around the place. It is a challenge.
"It is always important to understand the motivation of whoever you play on any given week.
"Those guys will be highly motivated. I'm sure they are always highly motivated. But there's always a little extra edge.
"We need to understand that, respect that, and understand what sort of an effect it is going to have.
"We try to control our own bits best, getting our detail right. We know if we get those right, it helps us perform better on the day. But be ready that they may expect certain things.
"How we formulate a game-plan sometimes dictates that as well."
For all of that, Leinster will be keeping the majority of their focus on matters closer to home and while some players from other provinces were given last week off, Cullen had his internationals in training before they took the weekend off.
It was a good chance for the coaching staff to gauge the mood and temper the disappointment that may have lingered from the Six Nations.
"Guys are p*****d off," Cullen admitted.
"(If) they haven't been picked, they come back a bit frustrated.
"They are the guys who often go best when they come back in because they have a real point to prove.
"I think the players all feel that they have a point to prove now. They are disappointed with how the campaign ended. Nobody is denying that, I don't think.
"You get concerned about all sorts of things. You can't control it. Over the last few years, I have watched the Six Nations, I just learned that you are better off trying to forget it and enjoy it as an Ireland fan. You're better off because if you are worried about all these other things, you drive yourself a little bit demented."
Johnny Sexton was one of the players who returned to training last Wednesday and unsurprisingly Cullen has no concerns about his talisman recapturing his best form in time to guide Leinster into the last four.
"He has been great, I have to say. It's just trying to get his body sorted and make sure he is in the best possible shape.
"He went into the campaign off the back of a bit of disrupted form really. He didn't play since the Munster game, so it was a difficult lead-in for him.
"But at least he has played, got through and started all five games in the Championship.
"For us now, it's about taking a bit of pressure off him. He was good last week. He's getting himself sorted and on top of everything."
Ulster feel like they have been closing the gap this season and this weekend's clash will be a real litmus test about the progress they have made and where they stand in the grand scheme of things.
Dan McFarland's side pose threats all over the pitch and with Cullen mindful of the sizeable travelling support who will be amongst the sold-out crowd, it may not seem as much of a home game as previous European encounters at the Aviva.
"It's such a unique thing, isn't it," Cullen added. "But Ulster are a team who won away against Irish opposition, if I remember correctly, back in 2012, against Munster in Thomond. Everyone would have predicted Munster to win that game.
"Our record (at the Aviva) is good but it doesn't really count for much, does it? This is a one-off game, you lose and you are out of the tournament and all the good work that has gone in to get to this point is undone to a certain extent.
"Every week you have to go out with a point to prove in how you impose yourself on the game.
"If players can't get themselves up for this type of game... this is what all the work is for. This is why we turn up for work all the time and put in the hours of slog.
"The sacrifice people make off the field is to play in big occasions. It is set up perfectly, two provinces going at it.
"It has sort of been under the radar in many ways because of the Six Nations. It takes everyone's attention away.
"For us, we've been working away in the background. Our players are hugely excited about coming back and playing for this team and trying to represent Leinster well. Hopefully, it's going to be a great occasion."
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