Tuesday 23 January 2018

Cullen's troops can take control of European destiny

Northampton Saints v Leinster, Live, BT Sports, 7.45

Robbie Henshaw has recovered from injury and will face Northampton. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw has recovered from injury and will face Northampton. Photo: Sportsfile
Leisnter coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leinster at Franklin's Gardens conjured up memories of 2013 and that glorious performance by a team largely made up of Ireland internationals stung by the heart-breaking loss to New Zealand.

That 40-7 win was, along with that season's Pro12 final, the high point of Matt O'Connor's two-year tenure, and three years on there has been lots of change.

O'Connor has been replaced by his captain who came off the bench that evening, Leo Cullen, who is one of seven players in that match-day 23 who have retired.

Of the seven backs who started, Eoin Reddan, Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Gordon D'Arcy have retired, Ian Madigan has left and Dave Kearney is injured. Only Rob Kearney remains in the same shirt.

Up front, there is more consistency with five of the eight men who started still involved tonight.

Still, it is a mark of the rate of turnover that O'Connor and Cullen have managed in four seasons.

Nadir

Through all of that, the high standards that drove the province to three Heineken Cups in four years slipped. Last year was the nadir, but there is a sense that they are once again on the right path.

Their academy is producing players at an astounding rate: they can hand European debuts to Adam Byrne and, potentially, Ross Byrne without really diminishing the quality in the side.

Cullen has left Zane Kirchner out of his match-day 23, with Naas native Adam Byrne starting on the wing and Old Belvedere centre Rory O'Loughlin on the bench. Such is his trust in the young guns.

Also not selected are Dan Leavy and Mike McCarthy as Cullen juggles his depth of talent in the pack to include two back-rows, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan, on a bench laced with impact.

Fit-again Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O'Brien bring international experience to the party, and it is a team laced with pace.

Northampton have had a poor season so far, and after defeats to Newcastle and their old rivals Leicester Tigers, they'll be keen to get back to winning ways and get a fresh start in European competition.

A heavy defeat to Castres in round two summed up their campaign, and they will know that a home loss would likely end their interest in the quarter-finals.

"We're playing against a bloody good Northampton side, who are proud and are scrapping for their survival in Europe," Cullen said yesterday.

"There's been quite a bit of scrutiny on them, so we know the pressures they're under and how they'll try to respond. That's a tough challenge.

"The start of these games. . . teams gain confidence or lose confidence by how they sometimes start. We know they're going to be emotionally fired up for this game.

"You just look at the pool and how close it is. There's very fine margins. We're just about sitting on top on six points, the team on the bottom is on four points, so it's incredibly tight."

"We've tried to prepare as best as we possibly can. We have been constrained by guys coming back in and it's been a short week with a Friday game coming off the back of a late kick-off on Saturday against Dragons.

"You're trying to manage some guys who have played in that game. You're trying to re-introduce other guys back in.

"It's been tough. It's accelerated learning. It's probably easier than this time last year because these guys have been here for part of the processes of pre-season etc.

"Guys are in good form. We had a couple of good hit-outs this week. The players will take control of it and drive the group between now and kick-off."

Former Munster playmaker JJ Hanrahan continues at inside-centre for the Saints and he has a chance to remind the folks back home just how good he can be.

Northampton coach Jim Mallinder welcomes four England internationals back, but curiously leaves captain Dylan Hartley and Teimana Harrison on the bench as Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood start.

Ken Pisi replaces George North, who has been stood down after his controversial concussion incident last weekend, while South African Nic Groom - once a target of Leinster - starts at scrum-half.

The Saints will look at the relatively inexperienced Leinster half-back partnership of Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery and hope to find some weaknesses, while they will also look to use their set-piece to attack their Irish visitors.

The back-row battle seems firmly titled in Leinster's favour, however, with O'Brien joining the increasingly impressive Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip in an international-class combination.

Those three will look to dominate, with Ruddock and Conan ready to add fresh dynamism during the second-half.

With the forecast good, they will look to secure quick ball for an exciting backline that sees Henshaw link up with Garry Ringrose as they look to develop an already promising partnership.

With an all-Irish international front-row and Devin Toner running the lineout on his 50th European outing they should get good primary possession against a good Northampton set-piece.

Louis Picamoles will give the home side plenty of go-forward, but they have a tendency to make mistakes on attack and Leinster will hope to pounce on their errors.

Top of the pool, these two games against the Saints are an opportunity for Leinster to take control of their own European destiny.

It might not be a 40-pointer, but they have what it takes to win.

Verdict: Leinster

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS - B Foden; K Pisi, L Burrell, JJ Hanrahan, J Elliott; S Myler, N Groom; A Waller, M Haywood, P Hill; M Paterson, C Lawes; J Gibson, T Wood (capt), L Picamoles. Reps: D Hartley, W Waller, G Denman, A Ratuniyarawa, T Harrison, T Kessell, G Pisi, A Tuala.

LEINSTER - R Kearney; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Carbery, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; S O'Brien, J Van der Flier, J Heaslip. Reps: J Tracy, C Healy, M Bent, R Ruddock, J Conan, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R O'Loughlin.

Ref - J Garces (France).

Irish Independent

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