No sooner had there been speculation suggesting the 2021-22 URC final might be held in South Africa than the tournament organisers quickly confirmed the highest-ranked finalist would host the decider. And, though he’d never let on, no one was happier about that than Leo Cullen.
Despite last Saturday's 28-23 defeat by a vastly more experienced Sharks line-up in Durban, the losing bonus point ensured Leinster a nine-point gap over the second-placed Stormers, whom they face in Cape Town at the DHL Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 5.15pm Irish time – live on TG4, Premier Sports and URC TV).
“Yeah, what do we need, two more points to guarantee top spot?” said Cullen on Monday. Even one point from this penultimate game would suffice provided they denied the Stormers maximum points, so giving Leinster something of a free hit in their final game against Munster at the Aviva Stadium on May 21st, secure in the knowledge that they’ll potentially have home advantage all the way through to, and including, the final.
“It doesn’t guarantee you any success but it guarantees you your home comforts, I guess,” said Cullen, who also highlighted potential pitfalls to finishing outside the top four – all the more so if obliged to travel to South Africa for an away quarter-final.
“So you try and stack the deck as much as you possibly can in your favour. I think it’s probably just reward,” said Cullen of the highest-ranked side hosting the final.
“Could you set a destination final in advance? I don’t know the commercials around that, but I think that’s hard to do based on what we have seen with Super Rugby. Super Rugby never went with that destination final, they always had it as the home team.
“And even still with a week to sell, even with a home team we know it’s not as straightforward as people think. Middle of June, there’s lots of other things going on as well in terms of competition for punters’ time. That’s probably the big challenge from a commercial point of view.”
Rónan Kelleher, initially named to start against the Sharks, was withdrawn due to what Cullen confirmed was “a pretty minor” shoulder injury. He has returned to Dublin and will be assessed further at the squad’s base in UCD.
James Tracy picked up a neck injury in training last week and will be further assessed before a final decision is made on his availability for next weekend, and ditto Max Deegan, who suffered a shoulder injury against the Sharks. Back at their UCD base, lock Ryan Baird is stepping up his rehabilitation from the back injury he suffered during the Six Nations.
The loss of Kelleher and Tracy for the Sharks match meant that the Belfast-reared, 22-year-old academy hooker John McKee made his debut from the start, as did fellow academy hooker Lee Barron (21) off the bench.
“We arrived on Monday, trained Tuesday and Wednesday and it was after that session at lunchtime on Wednesday that I gave Lee a ring and said: ‘Have you got your passport ready?’ He was on a flight at 6pm that Wednesday evening. It’s three flights to get to Durban so he got in on the Thursday and before he knows it he’s on the bench and flying into Bongi [Mbonambi] in the front-row.
"The two hookers making their debuts, pretty incredible really, against a World Cup-winning hooker, a Lions Series-winning hooker in a pretty formidable Sharks front-row as well. Brian Deeny in the second row, very positive as well for him making his debut."
Seven of the 10 academy players now in the 31-man squad for this trip were involved last Saturday and, defeat aside, Cullen is evidently enjoying working with such a mix of experienced and young players as well as the warm South African climate.
“Yeah, fantastic. Time with these young people, learning loads so I am. The youth of today. I’m feeling older by the day.”
There have been some grumbles within the South African media and broadcasters that Leinster’s squad is lacking in Test stars, and Cullen can understand that, but pointed to the changed European format wherein a team who reached both finals would play up to eight knock-out games.
“The way the system works you can only squeeze so much out of our players and our players are our assets at the end of the day, aren’t they?” said Cullen, also highlighting their November, Six Nations and summer tour commitments with Ireland.
“We were confident that they would give a decent account of themselves so the challenge for us is to try to do it again this week. I think you can get a young group up for a game, but the challenge is to try and get them up for another game.
“The Stormers are a different type of team, a lot more attacking threat in terms of the way they play. That’s to do with the conditions then as well, because when you’re in Durban, the humidity, there’s been quite a bit of rain, it’s been a lot harder for them to play so they have much more of a power game and a kicking game, whereas the Stormers will throw the ball around a lot, keep the ball alive, offloading out of contact all the time.
“They’re more akin to a Toulouse, say, trying to keep the ball off the floor and less inclined to set up rucks. They’re a good team to watch. If you watched their game against Glasgow [which the Stormers won 32-7] and some of the tries that they scored, they’re a very, very dangerous team.”