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Cullen looks to 'get mix right' ahead of Clermont clashes

THE fact that Italian minnows Zebre are improving every week is something Leo Cullen is only too eager to highlight.

In recent games they outscored Ulster by four tries to two, but lost the game and were within a score against both Scarlets and Edinburgh. It's still impossible to see them seriously threaten a side like Leinster, who are busting at the seams with talent.

It was a given that Cullen would talk about "respecting Zebre."You have to afford all professional outfits due respect. But, as the Leinster captain highlighted, this game is more about Leinster than Zebre.

It's about Joe Schmidt's team really clicking at the RDS ahead of what are potentially season-defining back-to-back games against Clermont in the Heineken Cup.

Cullen confirmed: "We need to get the mix right. Our processes have to be right and we have to improve. I'd be hoping for the intensity of performance we showed in the first 40 minutes against Cardiff in our last game at the RDS," said Cullen.

Cullen's point is a valid one. Leinster had the bonus point wrapped up in that game inside 25 minutes and turned over leading 40-3. They drew the second half 19-19 in a game that will be remembered mainly for the injury suffered by Brian O'Driscoll. Cullen was pointing out that the way they took their foot off the gas in the second half is not acceptable anymore, especially as the levels of Leinster's performances have vacillated wildly this season.

They need a big performance this weekend to lay down a marker as much as anything else.

"It's about managing ourselves," Cullen added. "It will depend on the conditions of course. Against Glasgow we managed some good stuff in the first half with line-breaks, but the game deteriorated in the second half and it turned into a bit of a slog.

"The weather will dictate a lot this weekend. It's important that we're adaptable and can play in whatever conditions prevail. For us, though, these games against Clermont are going to be pivotal to our season. They've got off to a flier with two wins and two bonus points.

"They've great strength in their squad – it'll be interesting to see who they play against Toulouse this weekend – but at the moment we'll focus on Zebre."

Leinster are likely to include most of their returning international contingent this weekend as no one is being officially rested by Schmidt, although indications are that Jamie Heaslip might be held back after his endeavours with Ireland.

This could see Sean O'Brien continue at No 8. "Sean had some good carries last weekend. I thought he was very impressive and it was great to see him get through 80 minutes," said Cullen. "He showed no ill-effects this week after the game and he's a key player for us. Hopefully, he'll only get better from now on."

Cullen referenced Leinster's game against Aironi – Zebre's predecessors in the Pro12 League – last season as reason enough to be wary of the threat tomorrow night.

"They have a lot of faces from that Aironi side with a few new faces too. It's tough for them forming a club overnight, but they will be physical. I remember watching that Aironi game last season and it really was a tough outing. Italian rugby is getting stronger and stronger. This (Zebre) team are confrontational, they are dogged, they will make life difficult for us.

"If you allow teams like Zebre into a game they become even more difficult. They grow in confidence, start smashing you, whereas if we can move them around a bit we can do things on our terms.

"That's what we'll focus on achieving. We need to concern ourselves with our own intensity and level of performance and the result will take care of itself."

Leinster will name their team at lunchtime today.

Irish Independent