Northampton a bigger threat than in 2011 – Cullen
Some time after that most epic of comebacks in the 2011 Heineken Cup final, captain Leo Cullen posed a question to himself.
"Will this," he mused in the wake of that unforgettable Millennium Stadium mugging, "destroy Northampton as a team or prove to be the final learning curve for them?"
Few among the delirious Leinster support could have cared less about the answer. Cullen never realised that he would be caring so soon. The next fortnight will provide him with a belated answer to his question.
As Brian O'Driscoll was declared fit to face Northampton, Leinster are this week assessing just how significant a threat the English side will pose to their European ambitions.
Since that 2011 success, Cullen's Irish rivals have aided that investigation.
Just six months after the final, Ronan O'Gara's deadly drop goal seemed to plunge Northampton into irreversible European decline; the Saints would only win two of their pool games, death by 41 cuts in Thomond Park crippling their challenge.
Last term, the decline continued apace, Ulster pitching up in Franklin's Gardens and romping to all five available match points.
One would have assumed that their pride would now be wounded almost irrevocably by the dastardly Irish. Not so.
Jim Mallinder's men returned to Ravenhill and thieved the win that denied Ulster a home quarter-final and, ultimately, sent them towards the European exit door.
And so, as they ride high in the Premiership and prepare for a revitalised European assault after two campaign failures, they do so as a much more rounded and resourceful side than that which crumbled to Leinster in 2011.
Then, the front-row heft that stormed the scrums in the opening half were irreplaceable and, as they wilted, the lack of depth was harshly exposed thereafter. This new model seems to be better balanced and less reliant on those front-row behemoths, Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati, both of whom left this summer.
"You look at some of the players they have brought in since then, like the Pisi brothers for example, they have added different dimensions to their game," agrees Cullen, albeit Samoan George Pisi will be suspended for dumping Tommy Bowe on his head last month.
"Luther Burrell has taken the Jimmy Downey role that was there before. He is strong and physical, gets the team going forward. Then you have George North, who is probably one of the outstanding wingers in world rugby at the moment.
"Kahn Fotuali'i has come in at No 9 – you know there's something different in his game; and if Lee Dickson starts, they can mix it up later if needs be. They have got exciting players across the board. There are very strong ball carriers and if you let them play they are a dangerous team."
As Cullen references, the fundamental Northampton strengths still remain, albeit less reliant on the front-row hit, coinciding with the new rules in any event, and also with more flexibility in terms of team selection.
"There isn't a massive complication in terms of how the Saints play the game," said Roger Wilson, Ulster's former exile in Northampton. "It's not a hugely complicated game plan, although it's highly effective."
But now there is a more rounded feel to their game and their buoyancy in the Premiership – albeit often an illusory measure – sees them brimming with confidence after seven successive wins.
"Northampton are playing very well and have massive threats around the park," said Leicester Tigers' head honcho Richard Cockerill, alluding to the more varied aspects of the Saints' game these days. "In previous years, if you stopped their line-out drive and scrum, you would do well against them. Now they have Kahn Fotuali'i, Alex Corbisiero and George North, while Luther Burrell has improved out of sight. Their psyche will be different. They are a more rounded team."
Greg Feek was the architect of Leinster's scrum resuscitation in Cardiff in 2011; a footnote that deserved equal billing with Johnny Sexton's half-time tirade and the second-half influence of messrs O'Brien, O'Driscoll and Jennings.
Leinster's scrum coach is keen to highlight that the yeomanry who remain in the Northampton trenches will still dictate the tempo and temperature of their approach.
"Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga'uiha aren't there, that's the obvious difference, but they've still got their talismen there," he said. "Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and in the back-row Tom Wood, Clark, Dickinson, they're all still there, so it's still a formidable task.
"The young guys who were in there before Tonga'uiha and Mujati, the Waller brothers for example, they've come along and going pretty well.
"Both philosophy and personnel have changed a bit. They have their way of doing things and it's very effective. Their scrum and their maul, what they do in those areas is still right up there with the best."
Leinster have changed too, no more so than this season, with Matt O'Connor's quiet revolution grounded, for the meantime at least, in defensive reality rather than offensive fantasy.
So, does Cullen have the answer to the question that has dogged him for two years now? When he first asked it, his instinct told him that defeat in 2011 might be the final learning curve. If so, it is a leisurely lesson.
"Jim Mallinder is a pretty astute coach," said Cullen. "He has given them a style of play where they are probably able to adapt a bit more.
"They were a young team back then and I knew a few years would really stand to them."
Cullen will sincerely hope that Northampton's coming of age doesn't arrive at Leinster's expense.
Leinster vs Northampton
Heineken Cup final, May 21, 2011 Millennium Stadium
Leinster 33 Northampton 22
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 68), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 77), E Reddan (I Boss 72); C Healy (H Van der Merwe 59), R Strauss (J Harris-Wright 78), M Ross (S Wright 77); L Cullen (capt), N Hines (D Toner 77); K McLaughlin (S Jennings h-t), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton (S Commins 77), J Clarke, J Downey (J Ansbro 66), P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty 66), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 66), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman 69), B Mujati (T Mercey 66); C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson 77); C Clark, P Dowson, R Wilson.
Heineken Cup, Pool 1, Round 3, Franklin's Gardens, December 7, 2013
Possible teams – Leinster: R Kearney; Kirchner, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, D Kearney; Gopperth, Boss; Healy, Cronin, Ross; Toner, Roux; McLaughlin, O'Brien, Heaslip.
Northampton: Wilson; K Pisi, Waldouck, Burrell, North; Myler, Dickson; Waller, Hartley, Ma'afu; Lawes, Day; Wood, Dowson, Manoa.
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