Wednesday 21 February 2018

Cullen: Memories of Axel sure to galvanise Munster for Leinster showdown

Leo Cullen: Fully focused Photo: Sportsfile
Leo Cullen: Fully focused Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

European ambitions were the main order of the day at the launch of the Champions Cup but the small matter of Saturday's Leinster-Munster Guinness PRO14 derby was naturally unavoidable.

A week out from the return of European action, intensity levels are expected to rise and Leo Cullen insists that supporters won't be short-changed by either team picking weakened sides this weekend.

The interpros have suffered somewhat in recent seasons but the timing of the traditional Leinster-Munster clash at the Aviva generally whets the appetite for what is quickly coming down the tracks.

"I think both teams will be fully locked this week," Cullen said. "I think Rassie (Erasmus) will name a strong team and I'm pretty sure we're going to name a strong team.

"The fans that turn out will get full value for money in terms of two teams that will be fully committed to their colours and to their teams. It will be a great game, hopefully.

"This is when the spike happens. It focuses the minds of the players, even though some of them haven't played a huge amount. It does focus the mind because of what's at stake.

"There's probably somebody clipping at their heels at both sides. I'm sure there's some established players and some up and comers in the Munster and Leinster teams that would want to have a crack at those players because they are competing for higher honours as well and team selection.

"If you look around the world, name me a bigger game. Leinster-Munster games are fantastic occasions, great buy-in from supporters, hopefully we'll get a great crowd at the Aviva as well because makes all the difference, it adds to a sense of occasion.

"If it was behind closed doors in front of 10 people, the two teams would be going hard at it, so what the supporters bring really makes the occasion. The players guaranteed will turn up and deliver intensity, it's a great fixture."

This time of year will also stir up some difficult memories for the Munster squad as the one-year anniversary of Anthony Foley's untimely passing is just around the corner.

Last season's Leinster-Munster clash at the Aviva proved to be the last match day that their former coach was involved in and Cullen admitted that it was something he has been mindful of in recent days.

"I presume this week will have a real galvanising effect on them," the Leinster boss maintained.

"I was reflecting over the weekend that the last time I saw Axel was before the game this time last year.

"I presume they're going through all those memories themselves this week which won't be easy. You could see the effect it had on them last year as a group.

"Axel was always somebody I looked up to and admired, he was number 8 on the Irish schools team in '92, I was number 8 on the Irish schools in '96.

"He made his debut for Ireland in 1995, and I remember the try he scored against England in Lansdowne Road when England won 20 points to eight and he went on obviously to play for Munster and captained them to lift the European trophy in 2006.

"He was someone I always looked up to and admired, it's hard to believe he's not here any more.

"But what they're going through now will be easy in comparison to what they've been through."

Top 14 leaders Montpellier arrive in Dublin the following week and given their red-hot form, Cullen is wary of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead in what is a tough Champions Cup pool.

Vern Cotter has had an immediate impact with the French side and with Ruan Pienaar pulling the strings, Montepllier will pose Leinster problems.

"There is a lot of pressure on Vern as well because he is spending an obscene amount of money," Cullen added.

"I'm sure they are going to be looking for results. We do things very, very differently.

"The level of money they are spending, I don't know how sustainable it is but they are willing to do it so with that I'm sure comes huge pressure."

Irish Independent

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