Friday 17 January 2020

Leinster can add to perfect 10 now 'tough period' behind them

Cullen:
Cullen: "It’s not something I’ll ever forget, put it that way." Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It feels like a lifetime ago at this stage, but it is only four years since Leinster crashed out of the pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup after losing both of their crucial back-to-back meetings with Toulon.

Leo Cullen had barely gotten his feet under the table before people were wondering how long he would last, yet that baptism of fire has proved to be the making of him.

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Ireland had come off the back of another World Cup quarter-final exit, and with Leinster the bulk suppliers it was left to Cullen, a rookie head coach, to pick up the pieces.

You could forgive him then for having some concerns, privately at least, about how the latest World Cup failure would impact on his side.

The answer has been empathetically delivered over the opening months of the season as Leinster have won all 10 of their games.

That doesn't look like changing at the Aviva Stadium this evening either as a wounded Northampton side arrive in Dublin having left several of their front-liners at home.

They may be leading the English Premiership table, but as Leinster ruthlessly proved in their hugely impressive victory at Franklin's Gardens last weekend, Northampton have a bit to go yet before they will compete with the European heavyweights again.

With Saints making eight changes to their team, Leinster will be eyeing another five points, which would all but seal their passage into the quarter-finals. As history has taught us, however, the knockout stages are all about securing a top-seed spot.

They may be without their captain Johnny Sexton, who Cullen revealed is targeting a return from a knee injury in time for the Six Nations, but Leinster are primed and ready to deliver another big statement.

For all of their confidence, however, they will be mindful that Saints turned them over at the same venue in 2013. Add in what happened four years ago when Toulon dumped them out of Europe and Cullen recalled the cautionary tale.

"There was so much change going on at that time," he said.

"We were a very green group, it's fair to say, a very inexperienced group - lots of good people with great intent but definitely inexperienced in terms of miles on the clock. I was just trying to get through it. It was a tough period to get through. It's not something I'll ever forget, put it that way."

Those days are very much a distant memory now and as much as Northampton will try spoil the party for the majority of the expected crowd of 41,000, it's difficult to see anything other than another bonus-point victory for Leinster.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster - J Larmour; D Kearney, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, T Furlong; S Fardy (capt), J Ryan; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, C Doris. Reps: B Byrne, E Byrne, A Porter, D Toner, M Deegan, J Gibson-Park, C Frawley, R Kearney.

Northampton Saints - A Tuala; O Sleightholme, M Proctor, A Symons, T Naiyaravoro, D Biggar, C Tupai; F van Wyk, M van Vuuren, P Hill; A Ratuniyarawa, A Coles; T Wood (c), J Gibson, L Ludlam. Reps: S Matavesi, A Waller, E Painter, L Bean, JJ Tonks, J Mitchell, J Graysom. F Dingwall.

Ref - D Jones (Wales).

Leinster v Northampton Saints, Live , Virgin Media/Channel 4/ BT Sport, 5.15

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