Monday 24 June 2019

Leo Cullen's men 'too loose' ahead of Toulouse

Leinster 40 Ulster 7

Seán Cronin races against Ulster duo Johnny McPhillips (left) and Angus Kernohan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Seán Cronin races against Ulster duo Johnny McPhillips (left) and Angus Kernohan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

And so to Toulouse. Or in Leinster's case, not to lose.

Saturday's clash of the European titans is entitled to bring out the giddy schoolchild in all who get their kicks from sport.

Even Leo Cullen, not someone often given to flights of fancy, can't help but transport himself back in time to when the French aristocrats mastered all they surveyed.

"It's going to be a huge game for us," he enthuses. "Toulouse were the team that we always wanted to be like. I think back to watching the European final when they played against Cardiff in 1996.

"I was in school watching that game, in fifth year. I remember all those players that played for Toulouse.

"The big, powerful forwards that were rampaging around the place and dominating set-piece, scrum, maul, the exciting parts of the game. But then they had some exciting backs as well that, you know, just tagged on a few tries at the end."

Leinster’s Jack McGrath tackles Alan O’Connor. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jack McGrath tackles Alan O’Connor. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

He didn't know it then, but Cullen would form the vanguard of an emergence of an equally powerful force from within his own club and city, one that would dominate the European landscape as imperiously as his childhood heroes.

Along the way they would not only emulate Toulouse but arguably surpass them, not merely with the substance of their achievements, but in the style of the accomplishments, not to mention developing a player production line that easily out-stripped their erstwhile rivals.

And yet, if Leinster's famous win in Toulouse back in 2006 kick-started their road to glory, some might say the French side's home win last October may have witnessed the rebirth of a club who had stuttered in recent times.

"Definitely," agrees Cullen.

Jamison Gibson-Park evades the tackle of Bruce Houston to score a try for Leinster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Jamison Gibson-Park evades the tackle of Bruce Houston to score a try for Leinster. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Now Saturday will demonstrate whether Toulouse can maximise a revival that cannot be ignored; Cullen's lingering regret is that his side afforded them the chance to do so in the first place.

While both sides are more than likely to pull through their qualification pool, the prospect of claiming home comforts in the knockout stages ensures that the stakes remain at their highest.


And so Leinster, who were on to a winner in the reverse fixture, cannot afford to finish this game with another losing docket.

"We had them in many ways," Cullen says ruefully. "But you could see how much it meant to them, the crowd, the atmosphere on the day.

"And then you see them at the end. In their minds, they're like 'we're back here, this is where we want to be'.

"And now we're the team who is trying to chase them."

As was the case in December, Leinster stood down most of their front-liners in preparation for a European double-header and their reserve strength was far superior to that of Ulster's in the RDS.

Sean Cronin was one of only two starters who are likely to double up this week and his first-half double helped set an occasionally sloppy Leinster on their way, with a wonderful try from Conor O'Brien and Andrew Porter's close-in nudge helping them to the inevitable bonus-point win by half-time.

Rob Kearney, the other likely starter next week, emerged unscathed on his return from injury, as did prop Jack McGrath, with both withdrawn as two more touchdowns (thanks to Jamison Gibson-Park and a penalty try) effectively guaranteed that Leinster will stage a semi-final here in a few months.

Until then, Europe will be the primary focus and, as he alluded to some slapstick ball retention from his side on Saturday, Cullen warned that his men must seize control of possession before they can do the same with their European destiny.

"You think back to the game. We start slowly, and we've had a few games like that where we have started slowly and got ourselves into trouble.

"But then we managed our way back into the game really well. At the start of the second-half, we looked like the stronger team at that stage, then get 27-21 in front.

"But then we throw and intercept passes and Toulouse are... listen, that's what they thrive off. The looseness, the unstructured scenarios where it looks like there is nothing on and suddenly they go the length of the field in many different ways with some of the very skilful players that they have and the off-loading forwards.

"They can create something out of nothing. Suddenly you're chasing the game again, but we lost our way and we had no way of getting back in control of the game. So we have to make sure we are in control of the game and not feed them these opportunities. And that's probably the worrying thing about tonight, the start of the second-half especially.

"We were just too loose. If we're like that next week, we are just going to get punished. And we'll get punished badly. That's the big thing about tonight for me."

Toulouse won again on Saturday, with a number of front-liners featuring, as they beat Agen to maintain their Top 14 eminence, continuing a sequence which has seen them spank Toulon as well as drawing with Clermont with a weakened side.

Leinster - R Kearney capt (J O'Brien 62); A Byrne, C O'Brien, N Reid, B Daly; C Frawley, J Gibson-Park (H O'Sullivan 62); J McGrath (E Byrne 51), S Cronin (J Tracy 51), A Porter (A Porter 51), R Molony (O Dowling 69), M Kearney, J Murphy (C Doris 22), S Penny, M Deegan.

Ulster - M Lowry (P Nelson HIA 18); R Lyttle, D Cave, J Hume, A Kernohan (B Houston 49); J McPhillips, D Shanahan (J Stewart 72); K McCall (A Warwick 49), A McBurney (J Andrew 33-HT; 51), W Herbst (T O'Toole HT), M Dalton, A O'Connor CAPT (C Montgomery 68), G Jones, S Reidy (C Ross 58), N Timoney.

Ref - Andrew Brace (IRFU)

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