Leo Cullen: All-Irish Champions Cup clashes take on a life of their own

Leo Cullen has some tight calls to make against Ulster but "once the team gets named it's about making sure everyone is delivering for the team"

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Whether as a player or a coach Leo Cullen has experienced everything European rugby can throw at you.

On Saturday, the Leinster supremo leads his side into a round of 16 clash with Ulster that brings its own challenges.

Neighbours, international colleagues, local rivals - these clashes always take on something of a life of their own.

Cullen wasn't at Leinster in 2006 when they lost to Munster at Lansdowne Road, but he was back to play a leading role in their Croke Park breakthrough win in the same fixture three years later.

He'd have watched with interest as Craig Gilroy slalomed down the Munster wing as Ulster stormed Thomond Park in 2012 before his Leinster side hammered them in the final, and through his hands as Ross Byrne delivered a clutch kick to beat Ulster in the 2019 quarter-final at the Aviva.

Last year was a more comfortable affair as Leinster took what Connacht threw at them in the first-leg in Galway and blew them away in the second.

But, over 80 minutes in front of a big crowd in Dublin, he knows that these matches can get out of hand.

"If you look back through the ages, yeah, they definitely do. They definitely do," he said.

"There's certainly no guarantees, the favourites don't always win.

"That's the way it goes. It goes back to how you prepare during the week, the process of getting yourselves right and in the best possible shape.

"That's the exciting bit we need to look forward to, just enjoying that process of delivering day-to-day good habits, enjoying each other's company, pushing each other on, all that good stuff that you hear about.

"But we have a really good group there now and I think they'll work hard for each other, and that's what we'd love to see.

"There's so much can happen in this sequence of games, it's such an unusual sequence of games, different to what's been before, but it can all be over very quickly and you suddenly have a load of free weekends.

"So, it's making sure you take each week one-by-one, and we'll try do everything we possibly can to give ourselves the best chance in the Aviva.

"It's getting close to being a sell-out game, and I think it will be an amazing atmosphere and occasion for Irish rugby, because it's club rugby, provincial rugby, it's all that's good about the game here in many ways and that lays the platform for the international game really.

"Obviously for us the club game lays the platform for our game, so it will hopefully be a great showcase for Irish rugby."

Leinster came through last Friday's win over Stormers unscathed and will be monitoring Caelan Doris, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan's recoveries from head injuries closely as they turn their attention to Ulster.

The northern province fielded close to a full side against the Bulls on Friday night and that cohesion may help as Leinster re-integrate a large group of internationals this week.

"We'll see next Saturday at 5.30. We played Ulster previously in a quarter-final game, post-Six Nations as it was then as well, and it was an unbelievable nip and tuck kind of game," Cullen said. “So there's two teams, in terms of selections they'll know each other very, very well. The derby games, there's the familiarity and all the rest.

"We'll put a plan together, see how everyone has come through Friday's game. There'll be some tight calls in the team but once the team gets named it's about making sure everyone is delivering for the team.

"We've a good group that's hungry and wants to be successful, put their own stamp on this competition, and it won't be easy but it's a great challenge."