Leo Cullen calls on Leinster to rekindle spirit of 2009

Province overcame odds to defeat rivals Munster before claiming first Heineken

Forwards coach Leo Cullen at Leinster squad training. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Forwards coach Leo Cullen at Leinster squad training. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Lest we forget, Leinster are one win away from a fourth European Champions Cup final and do have some pedigree, winning their last three semi-finals. In advance of Sunday’s daunting clash against Toulon in Marseilles, comparisons with their most recent semi-final win in 2012, by 19-15 against a crack Clermont Auvergne side in Bordeaux, are inevitable, although Leo Cullen regards their 2009 semi-final win over Munster as more pertinent.

Three years ago, such was Leinster’s standing as reigning champions that the bookies made their semi-final rendezvous with Clermont a 50-50 game, and Leinster came through 19-15 before beating Ulster 42-14 to win their third Heineken Cup in four seasons.

Regained the cup

Cullen, the Leinster captain in both the ’09 and ’12 semi-finals and now forwards coach, looked back on the win over Clermont and said: “There has been a massive turnover of players, so it’s a very different group. A lot of guys are still finding their feet at this level.

“Leinster have been in this position before where we were really struggling to deliver the goods when it came to the knockout games, quarters or semis, and I just think back to 2009 when going into that semi-final and I was doing the press beforehand and no one gave us a chance. It’s a very similar feeling to what it is today and I think guys appreciate that.

“At least the guys now know that if you execute in a certain manner in the game, then you will get a positive outcome. Back then we were just being written off all the time and had nothing to cling onto because we didn’t have a history of producing the goods on the big day. It’s an enormous challenge for guys and that’s why they come to work every day.

Second Captains

“They’re in the last four in Europe now, so it’s going to be tough regardless of where you are. It doesn’t come much tougher for sure; going to Marseille against the current champions of the last two years. It’s a great challenge, I’d love to be one of the players now going into the game. They’re the lucky ones I guess, aren’t they?”

As well as wounded pride after being outshone by their neighbours for years, Leinster had an element of fear going into that seismic 25-6 semi-final win against Munster at Croke Park, which might also be applicable now given last season’s 29-14 quarter-final defeat away to Toulon.

“We’ll see. Toulon pose so many challenges so it’s just making sure we have a real understanding of the threats they pose both when we have the ball and they have the ball. They’re a dangerous team. With the 30 internationals they have, it’s not a level playing field, is it, realistically? Because the resources they have are not the same as what we have.

“We have to make the best of what we’ve got, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re in a semi-final and it’s been a little bit ugly along the way getting to this point,” he admitted with a wry smile. “But we’re here and we’ve got a crack at it.”

Aside from having a “a very shrewd coach [Bernard Laporte] who understands the importance of certain things”, Cullen added: “The thing that sets them apart over the last number of years is how aggressive they are at the breakdown. They flood bodies into that area. How they actually clamp guys into the space is questionable at times, and how much release they get from their tackler, who allows some of their players to get into their poach position to get on the ball.

“We didn’t deal with it great in the quarter-finals. It’s an area we need to target because that’s where they cause teams a lot of trouble; turn the ball over with some of the quality backs that they have.”

Agitated Wayne Barnes was the referee in both the aforementioned Bordeaux semi-final and last season’s quarter-final, not to mention in the Wales-Ireland game when Leigh Halfpenny kicked Wales into a 12-0 lead inside 12 minutes and Barnes seemed to become particularly agitated with Seá

n O’Brien.

Citing how Leinster conceded only four penalties against Bath, and describing the English official as “world-class”, Cullen admitted: “We need to make sure we’re squeaky clean. We’re not trying to con the referee, we’re trying to paint good pictures all the time, and chatting back to a referee is not something that we push. We need to make sure that if that is the case, guys have learned those lessons, and they’re dealing with whoever is captain on the day.”

Leinster are likely to restore a dozen players in reverting to their quarter-final selection en bloc. Fergus McFadden, concussed against Bath, had completed the return-to-play protocols and “has come through fine”, said Cullen.

Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Ian Madigan and Rob Kearney have also recovered from knocks, but Kane Douglas will likely be sidelined again with his ongoing “disc issue”. Shane Jennings, who missed out on the 23 against Bath, is observing the return-to-play protocols after being concussed against the Dragons.

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