Pro14 derby days ideal preparation for Champions Cup forays

Leo Cullen says Leinster-Munster clash always a game to whet the appetite of players and fans

To all intents and purposes, the great and the good from the Pro14 were in Dublin yesterday to help launch this season’s European campaigns which kick-off in a fortnight.

But looming on the immediate horizon were this week’s derbies between Ulster and Connacht in the Kingspan Stadium on Friday night and the next instalment of the Leinster-Munster rivalry at the Aviva on Saturday.

Over 41,000 tickets had been sold for the latter, as of yesterday morning, and all agreed that these games were the ideal means of fast-tracking preparations for their respective forays into Europe.

"Definitely," said Leo Cullen.


“If you look around the world, name me a bigger game? Leinster-Munster games are fantastic occasions. There’s great buy-in from supporters, and hopefully we’ll get a great crowd at the Aviva as well because it makes all the difference; it adds to a sense of occasion. If it was behind closed doors in front of ten people the two teams would be going hard at it, so what the supporters bring really makes the occasion.”

Isa Nacewa, who merely said "we'll see" when asked if his groin injury might recover in time for this game or Leinster's ensuing European matches at home to Montpellier or away to Glasgow, described Saturday's derby as "always one of my favourites".

“You know it’s going to be hard, gonna be tough, you know you’ve got to be on your game and it brings out the best in both teams. The fans really add to the occasion; the blue and red armies walking up, the chills you get on the bus driving up to the game. That’s why we play the game and that’s why the Leinster-Munster battle is so famous around the world.”

Cullen also ventured that any disruption within Munster due to a change of coaches will be nothing to what they went through last season. Recalling how Anthony Foley was always someone he looked up to and admired, he added: "It's hard to believe he's not here any more, but what they're going through will be easy in comparison to what they've been through."

Fully locked

Rassie Erasmus suggested that he may be of a mind to rotate his team a little, but while acknowledging that the provinces have a difficult juggling act, Cullen smiled wryly when adding: “I think both teams will be fully locked this week. I think Rassie will name a strong team. I think we’re going to name a strong team.

“Actually I’m pretty sure we’re going to name a strong team, and I’m pretty sure Rassie will as well. So the fans that turn out will get good value for money in terms of two teams that will be fully committed to their colours and to their teams.”

Ahead of opening European games away to Castres and at home to Racing, evoking memories of last season and another rendezvous with Ronan O’Gara, Erasmus said of Saturday’s derby: “I think you can’t ask for a game with more pressure, intensity, speed, physicality. So win or lose, last year definitely the experiences we learned from that [Leinster] game we took into Europe. We’d like to win the game obviously but also what we learn in this game is also something nice to transition into Europe, so yeah, good preparation.”

As is so often the case, the Irish teams look a little undercooked compared to their bigger-spending rivals from France and England, although Cullen reminded us that “there was plenty of doom and gloom” in this same room 12 months ago. Yet Leinster and Munster reached the semi-finals and Glasgow, for the first time ever, qualified for the knock-out stages.

That said, Leinster will be doing well to emulate their feats of last season, when topping a group containing Montpellier, Castres and Northampton, and scoring the most tries in the competition.

Montpellier are flying high atop the Top 14 after registering their fifth win in six games with a 57-10 thrashing of Brive at the weekend and look an altogether different beast under Vern Cotter following the arrival of Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden.

It’s one hell of a tough pool,” admitted Nacewa. “[Louis] Picamoles, Pienaar, Cruden, Cotter: those guys alone at Montpellier shows they are recruiting world-class players so we just keep taking one week at a time. That’s all we can do as players and fingers crossed things go our way.”

Cullen watched Montpellier’s rout of Brive and said: “There is a lot of pressure on Vern as well because he is spending an obscene amount of money. I’m sure they are going to be looking for results. We do things very, very differently. The level of money they are spending, I don’t know how sustainable it is, but they are willing to do it so with that I’m sure comes huge pressure.”

As an aside, after his initial entry to South Africa had been infamously refused, Nacewa revealed: "I got a visa sign on my locker. Johnny Sexton thinks it's my new nickname."

But in that regard, Visa Nacewa was even more grateful for Scott “Lions Tamer” Baldwin stealing his thunder.

“The lion story might have stolen the show.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times