Tuesday 17 September 2019

Leinster boss Leo Cullen hopeful key pair can recover in time for Champions Cup final

Ulster 14 Leinster 13

Sean Cronin
Sean Cronin
Leinster’s Jimmy O’Brien is tackled by Peter Nelson of Ulster during Saturday’s clash at Kingspan Stadium Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

This game was an afterthought long before it kicked off and as soon as it was over the two coaches were moving on to the big ones to come.

For Dan McFarland and his successful Ulster side, there is the prospect of the final home game of the season against Connacht on Saturday with a place in the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals against Glasgow on the line.

Marcus Rea goes over for Ulster’s second try in their PRO14 victory over Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Marcus Rea goes over for Ulster’s second try in their PRO14 victory over Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh

For Leo Cullen and his defeated Leinster team it is all about Saracens now.

The build-up is the same as it was last year when the boys in blue did enough to earn a home semi-final and a weekend off ahead of the Champions Cup final, so they can click into a familiar routine.

Last night they celebrated their season to date and crowned James Ryan their Player of the Year, while they'll balance training and resting this week before kicking into gear in a week's time ahead of their short trip to Newcastle.

While Leinster rested most of their key players for their final regular season game of the campaign, Saracens pressed a host of heavy hitters into action against Wasps in Coventry and won.

Fergus McFadden of Leinster in action against Michael Lowry, left, and Johnny McPhillips of Ulster
Fergus McFadden of Leinster in action against Michael Lowry, left, and Johnny McPhillips of Ulster

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They operate different models and in different environments, as Cullen is so quick to remind us, and the former second-row doesn't come down either way on which one is the better approach.

He hopes to welcome Sean Cronin and Jamison Gibson-Park back to training next week, but Barry Daly's season could be over after he suffered a nasty collar-bone injury after coming on against Ulster.

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Fergus McFadden faces an anxious wait to see if he'll be cited after appearing to headbutt Sean Reidy during an otherwise incident-free game.

He would go on to score his side's second try, adding to Jimmy O'Brien's earlier effort, but Dave Shanahan's score kept Ulster in touch and debutant Matty Rea crossed for the winning try mid-way through the second-half.

Caelan Doris of Leinster is tackled by Jack Owens, left, and Peter Nelson of Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Caelan Doris of Leinster is tackled by Jack Owens, left, and Peter Nelson of Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The Ireland winger was unlikely to be selected for the final anyway, with James Lowe and Jordan Larmour the likely starting wingers and Rory O'Loughlin on the bench.

Cullen has a good idea of what his team will be after an impressive win over Toulouse and now he must balance analysing Saracens and focusing on his own team's strengths.

"There is always a balance, we needed to understand the threats that Saracens pose, they are so different to the threats we had in our semi-final against Toulouse because they are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum," he said.

"Toulouse are built on all-out attack in many ways, whereas Sarries are built on all-out defence and pressure. It does not mean one is right or one is wrong, that is just the way the teams are set up.

Johnny McPhillips of Ulster is tackled by Ciaran Frawley and Will Connors of Leinster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Johnny McPhillips of Ulster is tackled by Ciaran Frawley and Will Connors of Leinster. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

"The challenge is very different and we need to understand the threat of this team we are playing, just like every other week with the team we play.

"It is a fine balance, you need to understand what our team did to get to the semi-final and a final."

What is clear is that the two best teams in Europe will meet on Saturday week and the margins between them will be tight.

So, the decision to appoint Jerome Garces as referee could be a critical factor.

The Frenchman had an erratic day policing the breakdown when Munster exited the tournament to Saracens at the Ricoh Arena and the Leinster head coach said they would have to adapt to his way of doing business.

However, while fans reacted with horror at Garces getting the gig, Cullen was much more serene about the appointment.

"Jerome has pretty consistently been regarded as the top referee," Cullen said.

"He did the quarter-final against Saracens last year, he did Munster's game against Saracens in the semis.

"We will have a look at him, he has got some certain traits that differentiate him from other referees that we need to be conscious about as a group, but he is one of the best referees in the world."

For Ulster, who were delighted to earn a rare win over Leinster regardless of the lack of stakes, the arrival of Connacht has quickly come into focus as they hope to get Rory Best back for one last Kingspan Stadium outing after his ankle injury.

"They've got a pretty similar forward pack for the past few years. They're good at moving the ball, good maul and scrum. They're a good set-piece. team," Alan O'Connor said.

"We'll look to take that away from them. Hopefully, that will hinder their performance around the park."

ULSTER - M Lowry; D Busby, D Cave (capt), P Nelson, A Kernohan; J McPhillips (J Owens 58), D Shanahan (J Stewart 58); A Warwick (T O'Hagan 65), J Andrew (A McBurney 53), R Kane (T O'Toole 42); I Nagle, A O'Connor (N Timoney 63); Matty Rea, C Ross, S Reidy (Marcus Rea 16).

LEINSTER - J O'Brien; F McFadden (B Daly 62) (P Patterson 69), J Tomane, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne (C Frawley 44), N McCarthy; J McGrath (P Dooley 44), B Byrne (R Kelleher 54), M Bent (V Abdaladze 64); O Dowling (R Baird 65), J Murphy; M Deegan (S Penny 62), W Connors, C Doris.

Ref: G Clancy (IRFU)

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