Leo Cullen says urge to entertain part of Leinster’s DNA
Coach stresses team will stick to their adventurous game plan against Scarlets
Leo Cullen: “We want to be a team that plays. With that comes some risks at times so you’ve got to take that.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Perhaps it goes with the territory. Teams from big cities appear to have an onus or inclination to play with fair. Be it the Auckland Blues, the New South Wales Waratahs, Racing 92 or Stade Francais, or whomever, there is an expectation on them to use their backs and score tries, to both win and entertain.
It’s certainly true of Leinster, and hence, as much as the results, the prosaic nature of the rugby assuredly contributed to the end of Matt O’Connor’s reign. Things reached something of a nadir with that 10-0 win at home to Treviso in his penultimate Guinness Pro12 match in charge two seasons ago.
In truth, things did not improve that drastically last season, when Connacht assumed Leinster’s mantle as the country’s great entertainers and outplayed them in the final.
But on foot of Leo Cullen’s summer coaching reconnaissance mission to New Zealand, a pre-season under the watchful eye of Graham Henry and, maybe most of all, Stuart Lancaster’s arrival along with an influx of new players and the lack of a World Cup, all has changed utterly this season.
In 30 competitive games last season, Leinster scored 60 tries. In 30 so far this season, they have more than doubled that tally, scoring 127. In 22 regular season games in the Pro12 they’ve scored 91 tries compared to 51 at the same juncture last season, registering a dozen attacking bonus points compared to six last season.
The contrast was even more striking in Europe. In six pool games last season, Leinster managed just five tries, the lowest of any team in the entire competition. Even Treviso managed eight. This season, Leinster scored 31, the most of any side in the pool stages.
Keeping the ball in hand and attacking more from deep, maintaining their shape in attack and most strikingly of all, rapidly transitioning from defence into attack, Leinster are a team transformed. Although largely held in check by Ulster’s most committed defensive performance of the season last Saturday, no less than when going down with all guns blazing in Lyon against Clermont, now that they have a Pro12 semi-final at home to the Scarlets on Friday week, Leinster are not for turning.
“It’s a little bit a part of our DNA at Leinster,” admits Cullen. “We want to be a team that plays. With that comes some risks at times so you’ve got to take that. We’ve just got to make sure that we manage the game sensibly. It is a knock-out game.”
“The Clermont game was slightly different because of the fact that we obviously had to chase the game and there were a lot of really good things,” said Cullen, citing Dan Leavy’s disallowed try and the Garry Ringrose’s “individual brilliance”.
“We’ve got players who are very ambitious. When we play at home in particular, the players want to produce special moments that make people want to come back and support them. We’re very fortunate in that the players have a lot of friends and family there watching them, and they want to make those people proud to support them.”
“We have also played in a lot of better conditions, which meant that we scored a lot more tries but also that we conceded a lot more tries than we did last year,” adds Cullen, and indeed, Leinster have conceded 61 tries in 30 games this season, compared to 47 last season, the concession rate rising most sharply in 22 regular season Pro12 games, from 32 to 47.
“It’s a balance. Young lads come in and they’ve definitely got a lot of confidence. It’s that sort of fine balance between naivety or bravery. It’s always trying to get that balance. It’s exciting, but if you score 10 tries from deep you’re going to run the risk of maybe turning the ball over deep inside your own half, where you get punished. So it’s definitely that fine balance and as you get towards these kind of games we have to make sure we control how we manage that. But it has been a learning process, the way we play.”
Come the semi-final, Leinster will welcome back some front-liners who’ve missed the last couple of games, notably Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, both of whom trained last week but were again rested for the Ulster game.
The main consequence of losing in Belfast has been to hand Leinster a seemingly tougher semi-final against the in-form Scarlets, who beat the Ospreys 40-17 on Saturday to register their 17th win in their last 19 PRO12 games.
“They certainly are in form,” admits Cullen. “Go back to the start of the 22 games and they lost the first three. They have come a long way since then. They have got a real bounce and momentum from being together with a very steady team. We came unstuck over there in November.”
“Over the course of the league a lot of teams have two teams: there is one with the internationals and one without. They had a very settled team, particularly without their internationals, and probably more so than any other team.”
“You look at their team and their front row are all unbelievably good footballers. Tadhg Beirne we know and Jake Ball in the second row and then whatever back row combination they have they are very competitive at the breakdown.”
“Gareth Davies, if he plays at nine, has a strong running and kicking game. [Rhys] Patchell runs the team well. He didn’t play in the game here at the RDS and they really missed him that day. They have outside backs like Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies, Andy Parks, Liam Williams and Johnny McNicholls. They have so much pace and quality throughout the team.”
So, after a slow-burning run-in to the knock-out stages, here will be two teams not for turning.