Struggles in South Africa complicate Leinster’s run-in

Leo Cullen says injured trio may be fit in time for Champions Cup showdown with Northampton

Saturday’s performance in the 44-12 loss to the Lions was a huge disappointment for Leo Cullen and the travelling Leinster party in South Africa. Yet despite it jeopardising their ambitions of again securing top seeding for the knock-out stages, Cullen admitted that, in some respects, that defeat and the demands on his squad before they move on to Cape Town in readiness for next Saturday’s URC clash with the Stormers, underline the value of the South African franchises coming aboard the competition.

“It’s the experience of being here, it’s unbelievable for guys, just being outside the comfort zone and everything different, altitude, heat, all the rest.

“It’s a really great experience and they’re proper bloody teams, like with such great tradition. It’s rugby 24/7 on TV, it’s proper rugby country that we’re here in, which is great, amazing exposure for us.

“If you think back to Pro12, Pro14, it’s a proper shot in the arm. It’s great for the competition. It makes it so challenging, when you look at the league table, it’s unbelievably congested now how you go about managing the different components of the season, and when you get to this point of the season, some teams are still in two competitions and some teams are very singularly focused and motivated in the games they are playing whereas other teams have to manage moving parts.


“So, that adds to the fascination on the day to the fixtures that we’re seeing. There are no gimmes, which is positive for the competition.”

Cullen was not of a mind to use travel and rejigged team selection as an excuse, pointing out that Leinster still had several experienced players, and had beaten the Lions a year ago by 39-36.

“We started particularly poorly,” said Cullen. “After that, if you look at the stats of the game, we have 15 or 16 entries into the opposition 22 and we come away scoring only twice.”

Save for Charlie Ngatai and Cormac Foley successfully returning from injuries, Cullen admitted there were few positives. “I look at myself first. I think we can all be better, it’s not just players.”

Like with last year’s end-of-season two-game safari to South Africa, Andrew Goodman returned to their UCD base camp on Sunday, while Jacques Nienaber returns on Wednesday, leaving Cullen to run the show with Elite Player Development Officers Aaron Dundon and Kieran Hallett.

For some reason Leinster are being very coy about the identity of the 30-man squad they have in South Africa. “We’re keeping everyone guessing,” laughed Cullen. “We’ve a few moving parts, but the bulk of the group that played at the weekend are still here.”

As for whether those on the mend will be fit for the Champions Cup semi-final sell-out at Croke Park next Saturday week, Cullen said that Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien were “all reasonably close”, although he admitted of O’Brien: “Jimmy’s been out for a long time, so it would be a big game for him to step into.

“Garry has been training away, Jimmy has been training away, just non-contact. Hugo, Garry should hopefully be okay. Certainly Garry, Hugo should settle down quite quickly as well.

Cullen said that Ringrose’s injury is not the same as the shoulder problem he suffered against Leicester in January and which restricted his Six Nations action to an appearance against Scotland from the bench. “It’s slightly different. Well, it is different, yeah. A different part of his body,” said Cullen.

In any event, given the likes of Terenure’s Fintan Gunne and Henry McErlean as well as Lansdowne’s Charlie Tector did not feature in last Saturday’s Energia All-Ireland League semi-final at Lakelands Park, presumably they might feature next Saturday.

The other sobering thought is that in the second match in South Africa last season before hosting Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final, a callow Leinster were beaten 62-7 by the Bulls.

That didn’t cost Leinster top seeding, while two seasons ago, an inexperienced side eked out two bonus points in defeat to secure a top seeding. With that comes home advantage potentially all the way to, and including, the final.

But the margins look a little finer this time, with Leinster just a point above Glasgow before Saturday’s game against the Stormers. After their Champions Cup semi-final against the free-scoring Premiership pacesetters Northampton, Cullen’s side host the Ospreys before finishing off their regular season campaign away to Ulster and at home to Connacht in the last game at the RDS until the 2025-26 season. Glasgow face Zebre away and at home either side of their two games in South Africa against the Bulls and the Lions.

“Glasgow will have to travel to the Bulls and here so it’s about trying to keep control of your own destiny, isn’t it? We still have it, just about, we would have liked to have a few more points on the board so you have a life then, I suppose.

“But we just need to focus on ourselves and not worry too much about what Glasgow and everyone else is doing.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times