As satisfying as it was for Leinster to avenge last season’s double by Ulster in Belfast last Friday night, the dust had barely settled on their ultimately hard-earned 20-13 win to leave them top of the table than Leo Cullen was switching his attention to next Saturday’s home game against the Sharks.
The South African quartet have started imposingly, winning eight of nine matches - the one defeat being in a derby. The Sharks are one of three unbeaten South African sides and, of course, memories are still raw of Leinster’s semi-final defeat at home by the Bulls last June.
“When you lose to a team you have those fresh scars but it’s an interprovincial derby game, so I think there’s plenty of motivation at stake there anyway,” said Cullen on Friday night’s victory in Belfast. “But definitely there’s a respect piece for what Ulster have done over the last couple of seasons. That focused the mind as well.
“My mind is already thinking over to Sharks now because the last time we lost in the RDS was against a South African team, the Bulls. With Noel McNamara, it’s always dangerous,” said Cullen, in reference to the former Leinster academy manager who is now the Sharks’ backs and attack coach. “That bit of inside information, understanding the RDS, lots of things about our game etc. Noel is a very smart coach as well. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Cullen good-naturedly took issue with the word “upheaval” in light of of Felipe Contepomi and Denis Leamy leaving, and the impending loss of Stuart Lancaster and Johnny Sexton at the end of the season.
“There are great people here. Andrew Goodman has arrived from Crusaders after five unbelievably successful years there; he is a great addition. Sean O’Brien is a young coach coming in, Robyn McBride has huge experience, and that all adds different dimensions to the group.
“We have fresh blood there that will only get better. That is why we asked them to join us because we think they have unbelievable potential for the future as well as the here and now.
“So in terms of upheaval, a word I strongly disagree with, the thing with rugby is nothing stands still. Ever. People get older, players, coaches. Players retire, new players come through the system.”
Cullen, on a rolling one-year contract, is expected to stay in situ, and wasn’t too inclined to look too far forward.
“We have to enjoy the here and the now and build that excitement about building the team. If you look too much into the future you are going to come unstuck now. At the end of last season it was so deflating. But I am as excited as I have ever been being in this role because of the here and the now and the great people we have. It is not by accident we have got to this point. I am hugely excited.”
Ulster were undoubtedly hit harder by the Emerging Ireland tour, with players such as Robert Baloucoune, Tom Stewart, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore and Ethan McIlroy ruled out as a result, but when asked if that frustrated him, Dan McFarland toed the party line.
“Don’t poke the bear,” he said. ”No, I’m not [frustrated]. I’m glad that they’re getting the opportunity in South Africa to put their names forward for the World Cup.”
The heavy rain didn’t suit their high tempo game, but McFarland admitted this had been something of a reality check when asked what he learned from this game.
“That we’re not as good as Leinster. They brought an extremely strong team up here. We were bested in that first half, but we’ve got some guts. There was no lying down and taking that. I thought there was some real fight in the fellas there to come back and squeeze a bonus point which I thought was terrific.”
Lamenting a “definitive offside” by Leister off the last scrum which would have given them one final penalty to the corner, McFarland added: “it got pretty close and tense at the end, so we’re pretty pleased with the fightback.”