At face value, although it comes with absolutely no guarantees, Leinster go into their biggest match in four seasons in fairly rude health. Last Saturday’s URC final round game against a more needy Munster may have been their only dead rubber of the season, but their amalgam of experience and likely young lads maintained Leinster’s momentum with a 35-25 win in front of a largely blue-clad and boisterous crowd of 32,411.
It augmented the impressive Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final and semi-final wins over Leicester and Toulouse, and there was the added bonus of Jordan Larmour and Ryan Baird adding to Leo Cullen's options for next Saturday's final against La Rochelle in Marseilles with eye-catching returns after absences of 10 and 12 weeks with hip and back injuries.
All in all, also considering that Johnny Sexton, Caelan Doris and Jamison Gibson-Park missed last season's 32-23 semi-final defeat by La Rochelle, and Andrew Porter has since returned to loosehead, Leinster would appear to be in a better place than was the case that day.
“It’s very hard to say,” was Leo Cullen’s guarded analysis of that theory. “We tried to plan the season out well with some of the frontliners, making sure that they are able to fire when it really matters.
“We’ll see. It’s going to be a massive challenge isn’t it? Playing the game in France, it’s a hard thing to do, whether that’s in a team’s home ground or even neutral grounds, as we have seen in some of the semi-finals in particular in France over the years,” he added.
Indeed, as if to illustrate the point, Leinster have lost four of their five semi-finals in France, including in the Stade Velodrome against Toulon seven years ago. But it is the memory of last year’s defeat by La Rochelle which has fuelled Leinster this season and will do so particularly this week.
“When you lose a game of that magnitude you want to learn all the lessons you possibly can from the game and be better next time. There is no guarantee on that.
“It’s a game that haunts many of us, for sure. You want to be better off on the back of those haunting experiences, shall we say. We’ll see. Both teams have rested players that played in the semi-finals. Obviously it was interesting [Will] Skelton came back from his season-ending injury, which was interesting,” Cullen repeated with a wry smile in reference to Ronan O’Gara having seemingly ruled the giant Australian lock out for the rest of the campaign with a calf injury.
Skelton played the last 14 minutes of La Rochelle’s vital bonus-point 32-13 win at home to Stade Francais to rise to fourth, but still have the four sides below them within range, including Lyon, who they play away on the final day of the regular season.
O’Gara retained only two of the starting XV from their Champions Cup semi-final and the return of Skelton, Leinster’s wrecking ball in chief for Saracens in the final three seasons ago and last year, is a timely boost for La Rochelle.
Cullen admitted that “to a point” Skelton’s return might change some of Leinster’s planning. “There are certain things he does that he is very effective at. Being aware of them and then trying to come up with a plan ourselves to deal with some of the threats he poses.
“We have discussed it, so that’s why the comments [of Skelton being ruled out], like some of the stuff, you take with a pinch of salt for that reason. We’ll try to be awake for everything as best we possibly can.
“I know Rog has such a strong affiliation with this tournament, he will be desperate [to win it]. They took a bit of a gamble this week and it paid off for them, in terms of their selection against Stade Francais. That’s a tough choice over there, that was a brave play by him which came off. It signals the intent piece.
“Two teams who treated the tournament with full-on respect from day one this year. You want those teams rewarded to a certain extent and come through. I certainly hope it will be a great game. We obviously want to win and we know they are desperate to win as well.”
As to whether Leinster have been sufficiently tested for this "massive challenge", Cullen cited the lessons many of his side had learned in the Six Nations, notably against France on a raucous night in the Stade de France, and Leinster's quarter-final win in Leicester.
“We’ve gone away to Welford Road in the quarter-final game, and against a very, very physical type of team in Leicester Tigers. La Rochelle will be that physical type of team, take us on around the setpiece etc. The pitch in Marseille looks better than the pitch in Welford Road, but it’s that type of team mindset, very aggressive around the ruck, and that’s probably what we faced down there.
“So it’s trying to understand the interpretation of referees etc, all the different factors that lead into those big games. It’s away from home in France against a French team. So it’s learning from the past, whether it’s La Rochelle or for a lot of the Irish guys, that Six Nations game.
“Some of the calls in that game even, France were very aggressive around the breakdown. So in terms of a template so to speak, they’re the things we need to make sure we’re braced for and prepared mentally and physically for as well.”