Wednesday 20 February 2019

Leo Cullen wary of familiar obstacle to repeat success

Wasps 19 Leinster 37

Leinster’s James Ryan attempts to get through the combined efforts of Tom Cruse (left) and Josh Bassett during his team’s victory against Wasps. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s James Ryan attempts to get through the combined efforts of Tom Cruse (left) and Josh Bassett during his team’s victory against Wasps. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O’Connor

When Leinster and Ulster take to the Aviva Stadium pitch on the last weekend in March it will only be the fifth time that two Irish provinces have faced off in Europe.

Leo Cullen can attest to the special nature of those past contests. He was in England when Munster overcame Leinster at Lansdowne Road in 2006, but returned for the Croke Park revenge mission three years later.

He skippered his side to the victory over Ulster in the 2012 final, but it was another game from the same season that he called to mind as he looked towards the last-eight clash.

Interestingly, he recalled the day Craig Gilroy and Ulster stormed Thomond Park in 2012, perhaps offering a subtle reminder that these are no ordinary fixtures.

After negotiating their way past Wasps with a minimum of fuss to top their pool, the champions remain 5/4 favourites to retain their title.

The bookies are offering a 17-point spread in their favour against Ulster, but given the number of Dublin-born players in the visiting dressing-room there won't be any lack of motivation from the northern province who clinched their place in the last eight with their win over Leicester on Saturday.

Garry Ringrose leaves Dan Robson trailing in his wake during Leinster’s victory over Wasps during their Champions Cup clash at the Ricoh Arena. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Garry Ringrose leaves Dan Robson trailing in his wake during Leinster’s victory over Wasps during their Champions Cup clash at the Ricoh Arena. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

"Yeah, they are different," Cullen said as he considered the history of the all-Irish games.

"You could see it over Christmas, those derby games take on a bit of a life of their own.

"I'm trying to think back, I remember Ulster winning their quarter-final against Munster away at Thomond.

"They'll get a lot of confidence from knowing they've done it in the past. I know it's quite a while ago.

Leinster's Jordan Larmour is tackled by Wasps' Ben Morris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jordan Larmour is tackled by Wasps' Ben Morris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"But still, there's some of those faces still knocking around. They'll know they can do it if they come with the right plan.

"For us, it's about trying to prepare as well as we possibly can given the constraints that we have which is not having access to the players for eight of the next 10 weeks.

"It makes it tricky, it's trying to get everyone back together on the same page, be nice and clear what it is we're trying to do and work hard when we get back together and move on from there to try and perform as well as we can on the day.

"It'll be a great occasion, a quarter-final against Ulster - they're the games all the players want to play in.

Leinster's Ross Byrne. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images
Leinster's Ross Byrne. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

"There's only been three of them in Europe for Leinster, it's amazing really over that period of time."

Cullen can take satisfaction from the way his side bounced back from their defeat in Toulouse to top their pool.

That loss may deny them a home semi-final if they and Racing 92 win their quarter-finals but the challenge was to recover and get a home quarter-final and they did just that.

With Wasps' interest in the competition long over, yesterday looked like a forgone conclusion and it played out that way as well.

Garry Ringrose crossed for an early try before Seán Cronin twice got over on the back of mauls either side of half-time.

Noel Reid's fine effort secured an unnecessary bonus point and while Wasps managed three tries of their own, no one in blue will be too concerned.

Excellent

Jamison Gibson-Park was excellent, James Ryan showed well and the returning Seán O'Brien and Robbie Henshaw hit the ground running.

"The quality of the players - it's pretty simple, isn't it?" Wasps director of rugby Dai Young said when asked about what sets Leinster apart.

"You've got to feel sorry for them when Jack Conan unfortunately doesn't play and they put Seanie O'Brien on!

"But they're a quality team, well-coached, play together a lot, a lot of experience mixed in with some real exciting youngsters.

"You've got to sit back and put your hand up and say what a quality outfit they are. They can play either way as well, I think you saw patches today where basically they can shut up shop, go to their driving lineout and close things, take things on up front.

"Or they can play a more expansive game. They're a really quality team and a quality squad. For this competition, we've seen from ourselves and other teams as well - if you lose two or three players, sometimes the teams are not quite as potent.

"When you look at Leinster, they can afford to lose four or five. They played Toulouse the other day and they had a lot of guys missing but they still had 14 internationals. I think they had five Lions out, but they still had 14 internationals on the field.

"That type of strength in depth is going to take some beating."

That is Ulster's task.

The northern province have recruited heavily from Leinster's system in recent years and in Jordi Murphy they have a real asset.

The back-row was a key part of Cullen's team when they won the competition last season and the coach is wary of the role he might play.

"It always is an extra challenge, we say it all the time. Definitely.

"We saw it with Bath with Girvan (Dempsey) knowing us well, seeing them read certain things that we do. It's a tricky challenge.

"Sometimes you can get side-tracked by some of that worry as well, we just need to be clear on what we're doing ourselves.

"I thought the players applied themselves well this weekend, with all of the bits going on that you can't actually control it's easy to burn a lot of energy worrying about things that you have zero control over.

"That's why I think it was a credit to the players today, they controlled what they were able to control and put in a performance that was ultimately good enough to win us the game.

"We're pleased with that."

Now, he'll watch the Six Nations through his fingers while guiding his team through four PRO14 games before the internationals return for a meeting with Edinburgh a week out from the Ulster game.

Injuries could yet play a role but Leinster continue to look well set up for a real tilt at a second successive title.

WASPS - R Miller (M Watson 65); J Bassett, M Campagnaro, G Lovobalavu, E Daly; L Sopoaga (B Searle 65), D Robson (C Hampson 71); Z Zhvania (B Harris 56), T Cruse, J Cooper-Woolley (W Stuart 58); J Launchbury (capt) (C Matthews 10), W Rowlands (J Gaskell 72); B Morris, N Carr, N Hughes (A Johnston 60).

LEINSTER - J Larmour; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (R O'Loughlin 62), D Kearney; R Byrne (N Reid 66), J Gibson-Park (H O'Sullivan 74); J McGrath (C Healy 45), S Cronin (J Tracy 66), T Furlong (A Porter 54); D Toner (S Fardy 54), J Ryan; R Ruddock (capt), J van der Flier, S O'Brien (M Deegan 56).

Ref - M Adamson (Scotland).

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport