Monday 15 July 2019

From a record defeat to champions of Europe - How Leinster turned things around after Wasps humiliation

In 2016, Leo Cullen’s men suffered a record defeat in their final pool game against Wasps to exit the Champions Cup. Now, they travel to the Ricoh Arena with the tables turned

Lowest ebb: Leo Cullen was left searching for answers by Leinster’s last visit to the Richo Arena in 2016, when they were hammered 51-10. Photo: Sportsfile
Lowest ebb: Leo Cullen was left searching for answers by Leinster’s last visit to the Richo Arena in 2016, when they were hammered 51-10. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It was perhaps the lowest point in recent Leinster history, a humiliating defeat that appeared to spell the end of days for a European dynasty.

Leo Cullen shakes his head when he recalls his team's last visit to Coventry - a 51-10 hammering that left the three-time champions searching for answers.

Few Leinster fans who made the trip to the Ricoh Arena on January 23, 2016 would have envisaged that, three years on, they would return to Wasps with the roles firmly reversed; on course for their third successive home quarter-final and with a fourth star on their jersey.

If Leinster are unrecognisable from the passive side that gave up eight tries on a nightmare afternoon, Wasps have gone in the opposite direction.

They reached the semi-final that season, while the resurgent boys in blue beat them at the quarter-final stage a year later. They didn't make it out of the pool a year ago and this time around they never recovered from the hammering they took at the RDS on opening night and are long gone from the knock-out picture.

This month has been a turbulent one for Dai Young's side who confirmed the departure of England internationals Nathan Hughes and Jake Cooper-Woolley and Springbok Willie le Roux. They've signed All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa and Jeff Toomaga-Allen, but Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury are also rumoured to be off.

After the hype that greeted their move to Coventry, the sheen has gone off the club who are sixth in the Premiership.

Coach Young has blamed the attritional nature of the Premiership and the league's salary cap for his team's inability to compete in Europe this season.

"Look at Leinster last weekend, they had five Lions out injured and they still had 15 internationals on the field. They've got that strength in depth," he said this week.

"Certainly in our group, it just shows the quality of the opposition we are playing against.

"As directors of rugby, we have a salary cap that we all adhere to and we all try to get as good a squad as possible, but I think its plain to see for everybody that it's an attritional league and you do pick up injuries.

"When we pick up injuries, we are not replacing internationals with internationals, with internationals behind them as well."

Cullen, however, gave that argument the short shrift.

"I don't know enough about the working of their salary cap. I know they have some players with reasonably high wage demands and they've spent big on some players," he said yesterday.

"If you look at their squad, they've a ton of talent. Saracens have won the European Cup twice in the last three years.

"Based on if they all have the same amount of money to spend and there is one of the teams in England that has won this competition twice in the last three years it disproves that comment, does it not?"

Leinster's model is, of course, very different to a Wasps side drawn from six nationalities.

Cullen's side boast 12 homegrown talents, two recruited from Irish sides and one uncapped New Zealander in Jamison Gibson-Park who will qualify to play for Ireland later this year.

"We've got a lot academy players that have been involved in the team this year. It's a huge part of the model," the former second-row said. "We come under pressure because we have a lot of players that are away with the national team at various different times.

"There's a couple of other teams out there that probably get affected in terms of the same amount of numbers but you have to be able to get the players from somewhere.

"We used a huge amount of academy players. In terms of a salary cap, they're not that expensive in comparison.

"We have certain restrictions as well in terms of the amount of foreign players we can bring etc ... whereas there's none of those restrictions on teams in France.

"It wasn't that long ago that we were talking about the Irish teams not having a chance of doing well in Europe ever again. There's a certain cyclical nature to it as well.

"I remember sitting in these rooms almost trying to defend the situation of the Irish teams and the PRO14 teams, because you guys (in the media) didn't give us a chance so... this is just today but what's different from three years ago, is their salary cap any different? I think the salary cap has gone up since then.

"I don't know... what's the shift? You guys figure it out.

"We're just focusing on week to week, trying to perform and win games, and build and bring players through etc.

"So, it's hard for me to give a full analysis of a full situation because I don't know… is the salary cap a factor or not.

"I don't know what the spend of certain things are versus say the Irish teams."

So, Cullen isn't going to accept the narrative about the English sides' struggles.

Rather, he is focused on what he yesterday described as "an unbelievable team" in Wasps.

By the time kick-off rolls around, Leinster will know where they stand with regards the race for a home quarter-final.

A change in tournament rules means the top two seeds earn the right to have home-country advantage in the semi-final too, but that is outside of their control and they need Saracens or Racing 92 to slip up today to open that door.

"We are where we are so we will have a pretty good idea as to where we are and what's required," Cullen said.

"I don't know does it make the picture easier but at least it makes it clearer.

"So we will wait and see, we will watch the games, try and not get distracted by all the bits going on so we need to just stay focused on what we need to do and we are preparing for.

"Sometimes there is comfort in playing first because you don't get distracted by all those other bits so it is a bit of both.

"There is a bit more knowledge but it can be potentially distracting in terms of our own preparation so we need to just go about our business in terms of the way we would in terms of trying to get a best performance.

"There is incentive to finish in the top two as well. So there is incentive to finish as high up the rankings as we can. We need to take our chances."

The return of Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw to the starting XV and Seán O'Brien on the bench only strengthens a team that played so well in the comprehensive win over pool rivals Toulouse last weekend.

Jordan Larmour holds on to the No 15 shirt despite Rob Kearney's return to fitness, while Jack McGrath starts at loosehead after missing out altogether last weekend.

Young has named a strong Wasps side, but his son Thomas is left out after being called into the Wales squad this week.

Ross Byrne will be a key figure for the visiting side as he looks to bounce back from the disappointment of missing out on Ireland selection, while Gibson-Park gets a big opportunity alongside him as he steps into Luke McGrath's boots.

McGrath's absence hands the highly-rated Hugh O'Sullivan a chance for a European debut off the bench. He is surrounded by players ready to make an impact.

The absence of Young Jr lessens Wasps' breakdown threat and Bath showed that the key to hurting Leinster comes by getting at their ruck ball.

With their excellent set-piece and relentless possession game, the visiting team will be confident of getting the quick ball they need to apply pressure and they are the best team out there at making it tell.

Their English hosts will put it up to them early on, just like at the RDS, but Leinster's class should tell over the 80 minutes. If they can get ahead on the scoreboard, there is every chance that Wasps will lose interest.

The bonus point is there for the champions, then they'll just have to see where it leaves them for the knock-out stages.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent

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