Thursday 19 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Leinster return to the Rec a very different beast'

Leo Cullen walks out at The Rec for what proved to be a steep learning curve for head coach in their 2015 defeat to Bath. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen walks out at The Rec for what proved to be a steep learning curve for head coach in their 2015 defeat to Bath. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

CIan Tracey

Returning to the Rec this afternoon will bring back all kinds of memories for Leo Cullen.

It is only three years since Leinster's last visit to Bath and it proved to be a somewhat seminal moment for both the club and their then new head coach, who barely had his foot in the door.

Back-to-back Champions Cup defeats left some people questioning Cullen's coaching credentials, yet the 40-year old has gone on to have the last laugh.

That only five players from the starting team that day in 2015 are included for this afternoon's (3.15) clash tells its own story - Leinster are now a very different beast.

The champions are, however, looking over their shoulder as the defeat in Toulouse last time out has left little margin for error from here on in.

That said, confidence remains high within the squad and buoyed by Ireland's successful November Series, the big guns return today.

For Cullen, it is a chance to reflect on how far he has come as a coach since that tough afternoon in 2015, as the success he has enjoyed in the time since speaks for itself.

"It was only six or seven games in at that point, it takes a while to change," Cullen insisted.

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"You guys (media) aren't that patient sometimes, you expect it straight away... it takes a bit longer."

Cullen knew the expectations that would be on his inexperienced shoulders as soon as he agreed to take on a job that he admitted came earlier than anticipated.

The club demands success and so do the Leinster supporters, whose patience during those tough times has been rewarded in spades with a promise of more to come.

"We lost to Wasps pretty heavily the week before, I remember that well," Cullen recalled.

"The game was in the balance, we gave away a penalty try, and even still we scored one very good try, did a lot of good things.

"There were a couple of moments in terms of how we managed the last period of the game, but it often comes down to that in very tight games - how you manage those big moments.

"As you're in the home straight, the last seven to eight minutes of the game, there were a few things we didn't manage well.

"I look back on that game a lot of the time, and how we could have done things better.

"The group is so different now, it's in a very, very different place, in many ways there was a lack of confidence, a number of factors, changing structure, taking time to adapt etc, etc, it's hard to compare.

"But it's always worth remembering and I certainly remember those days well."

The players who were involved that day won't need to be reminded about what went on either, but they will be comforted by the fact that they are now in a much better place.

Scott Fardy is the unlucky 'foreign' player to miss out this time as James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park take up the two spots in the match-day squad.

Even without Fardy, who has been an immense signing, Cullen can still name an entire pack full of Ireland internationals.

Dan Leavy's inclusion at No 8 is interesting, especially with Jack Conan deemed fit enough to be on the bench.

Noel Reid gets the nod instead of the injured Robbie Henshaw but he must have been pushed all the way by Conor O'Brien, who has impressed recently.

As well as Leinster's young guns have performed lately, Cullen was always going to look to his heavy hitters for a clash that the head coach knows will have a big effect on his side's hopes of making it to the knockout stages.

"There's not much margin for error over the course of the pool," Cullen conceded.

"Particularly when you're competing against your pool teams, and getting out of the pool is the first priority, then you're competing against other pools as well.

"We're just going to scrap for every point we can, we got a losing bonus point that day (against Toulouse).

"There was once upon a time a losing bonus point in France was not that bad a result but for us as a group, we got ourself in a situation where we scored three tries, we got in front, and we'd a chance to get to 10 points in the pool and open a lot of separation.

"Suddenly Toulouse get four points and we get one, they're sitting on eight points and we're in second.

"We're the team that's chasing them now, we know there's not that much room for error across the course of the games. It heightens the importance of this week again."

Bath could frustrate Leinster, particularly if the conditions are heavy on what is a poor pitch.

But the champions should ultimately have too much fire-power for the hosts as they look to get their title defence back on track and with it, banish the memories of their last visit to the Rec.

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