Sunday 20 October 2019

Cullen back on familiar ground as Blues drive for five

Leo Cullen alone with his thoughts before Sunday’s semi-final victory. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen alone with his thoughts before Sunday’s semi-final victory. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Leo Cullen has been to St James' Park before, so he has an idea of what to expect from the home of Newcastle United in a couple of weeks' time for the Champions Cup final against Saracens.

In 2002, the Blues' away game against the Falcons was postponed due to bad weather and the squad decided to spend a spare evening taking in the Magpies' 2-0 FA Cup third-round win over Crystal Palace as Alan Shearer and Clarence Acuna found the net.

The following Tuesday, he led his side to victory in the re-fixed game in Leeds - before losing their next pool game heavily in Toulouse and going out in the quarter-finals to Leicester Tigers.

The province left those inconsistent days behind them long ago, with Cullen guiding them first as captain and then as coach.

Now, he prepares to follow in Joe Schmidt's footsteps by leading the province to successive finals as the Irish side look for a fifth final win in five that would put them out on their own as Europe's most successful club.

Standing in their way are a Saracens side they know well and respect more.


The English champions won the 2016 and '17 iterations of this tournament and while Leinster halted their march in last season's quarter-final, Sarries look back to their best this year.

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Yet Cullen has a template to follow after seeing what pitfalls befell Munster in Coventry on Saturday.

Although they face Ulster in Belfast this Saturday, plans for the final are already afoot. And Leinster's head coach is expecting the challenge to end all challenges.

"I think when a team loses in a competition when they've won it previously, it just drives greater desire usually. That's what my experience would be," he said of his team's opponents on May 11.

"Particularly when you've got a group of players that has generally stayed together over the course of a good number of seasons now, you can see that some of them are pretty ambitious.

"So yeah, they're going to be a real handful but what would you expect at this stage of the competition? There's a lot of really good teams in Europe.

"They were seeded No 1, so they're in the final for a reason. They've probably been the most consistent team in the competition so far."

Last season's game had its own context. Saracens had been bulk contributors to the Lions, while their England contingent had endured a difficult Six Nations.

By the sound of things, Cullen expects it to have little bearing as he targets a strong start. But he knows that finals are unpredictable.

"You're trying to make all of these different assessments and again, feed in to a performance at the weekend," he said.

"We got a good start that day which helped, I think, because when Saracens get a good start they're a very tough team to play against. It's hard chasing the game against them.

"How you start the game is important, we got off to a reasonably good start against Toulouse which was good and everyone gets into the groove of the game.

"It can be hard to play catch-up in some of these finals. You never know what way the game is going to be.

"Racing were such a quality team in the final last year. There was rain. We all thought Bilbao would be like Saturday with the sun shining and 25 degrees, but in reality it was raining and it made it a cagey game.

"There's no guarantee as to what game it's going to be. We need to prepare for lots of different eventualities.

"That is what is involved at this time of year, because the adaptability piece is hugely important to win big games.

"You can go through 100 bigger pictures, but none of them might appear in the game.

"For us, the experience of the group is important and guys are still hungry to be successful. You go through the season and at the end of the season you realise guys are moving on at the end of the games, so everyone works very hard to ensure that everyone gets the send-off we'd like to give people who have given a huge amount to the club.

"It's a great challenge."

Leinster fans leaving the Aviva Stadium on Sunday might have felt the overseas player conundrum would be settled based on James Lowe and Scott Fardy's contributions, but Cullen is leaving the door open for Jamison Gibson-Park to return.

The selection door, he says, is not closed.

"We'll see how everyone is and comes through over the next couple of weeks," he said.

"We've got a game against Ulster so guys have an opportunity to put their hands up. If guys go well, we'll wait and see."

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