Leinster boss Cullen believes past successes over Munster mean ‘absolutely nothing’

‘It’s two different sets of players, a completely different environment’

Despite the trio returning to full training last week, Leo Cullen has confirmed that Friday night's Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Munster came a week too soon for Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Dan Leavy.

The Leinster head coach intimated that they might come into consideration for the final, were Leinster to reach it, and that of the three Ryan was “probably the closest at this stage, from what I saw today” at training.

Compared to the team which faced Munster, Hugo Keenan, Devin Toner and Will Connors all come into the starting XV and Cullen said they deserved their chances based on performances to date, albeit, he added: "There's some very, very tight calls across the board. There's not much in the selections.

“Josh van der Flier is very unlucky to miss out and a couple of other guys are unlucky to miss out across the team. Some of the coaches took a session this morning with guys who aren’t involved in the game and there’s lots of very good players that have missed out.

“You’re trying to get that balance in terms of rewarding guys who have put their hand up A – in training; and B – the previous form before we broke up. We’re also trying to make assessments on the two games we’ve seen so far.”

Leinster have a particularly strong record against Munster in Dublin over recent years, including semi-final victories at the RDS in each of the previous two Pro 14 campaigns, but Cullen maintained: “It meant a lot at the time when we won those games – it doesn’t mean anything now.

“Absolutely nothing is what it means and it’s important people understand that. It’s two different sets of players, a completely different environment, we’re playing in an empty Aviva, last time we played Munster was a packed Thomond Park and the time before that was in a packed RDS, I can’t remember the time before but they were packed houses anyway.

“The biggest difference in the supporters [being there] but the teams are very different as well, so I don’t think it’s of any real importance, certainly not for us. I don’t know what goes through Munster players’ minds but it’s a new challenge for them as well.

“This is a one-off game, it’s a semi-final, you lose and you’re out. It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? So what the most important piece is what you do to get over the line to get into the next round, which is the plan next weekend against Edinburgh or Ulster.

“It’s hugely exciting, it’s such a big game straight away and it’s going to be strange getting to the stadium and it’s the same as it was two weeks ago. You’ve got a sense of what it’s like and it’s different to what we expect for knock-out games but it’s positive we’re actually playing the game – it’s important not to lose sight of that because of lots of sections of society have suffered far greater than we have.

“We’re all dying to have supporters back in the ground, for both teams. We’re blessed that we’re very well supported, both Leinster and Munster, and hence these games take on a whole separate meaning because of what the supporters bring.”

Despite Munster’s shorter turnaround, Cullen’s respect for the challenge presented by Munster is palpable, based in the belief that Damian de Allende has added another dimension to their game and that both the South African World Cup winner and Munster collectively will be better for their two outings.

"They're clearly putting a bit more width on the ball with their attack. And De Allende will have had plenty of opportunity to bed in obviously compared to this time two weeks ago, leading into that first outing. He's a quality footballer for sure. Chris Farrell is obviously a big, physical player as well. They've some dangerous backs."

Munster’s threat over the ball has been enhanced by the new interpretation at the breakdown, with Cullen intimating that players such as CJ Stander are being given the benefit of the doubt if not supporting their own body weight.

“Probably a big thing as well, it’s well documented with rugby starting in New Zealand and Australia, in terms of the interpretation of the ruck is the big thing, and you can see Munster’s approach I guess to the ruck where you see it early, even in the Connacht game when they’ve probably three poachers at the same time, over Tiernan O’Halloran.

“That’s a big issue in the game, for referees, because there’s a bit more onus on the attacking team on inside entries and the extra roll on the ground. It’s pretty hard for a referee to see it all.

“Can he see the tackler insist on releasing? Can he see arriving players not supporting their body weight going for poaches? Munster, definitely, you saw them at the weekend, they’ll push the boundaries.

“Obviously Tadhg Beirne’s yellow card was a good indicator of their approach, where he is off his feet playing the ball and gets a yellow card from the referee. But there were a number of breakdowns in the first half [and] the challenge of a team playing against them or that type of team is not to get frustrated because Connacht clearly did get frustrated and had two players sent off and had a yellow card as well for a player going off his feet.

“So that’s the big thing, for the players to be able to understand how that’s being refereed on the day, because it’s probably slightly different to the approach compared to before we were put on lockdown I guess. The ruck, as is always the case, is going to have a massive bearing on the outcome of the game.”

Leinster have signed the Irish qualified, former Munster tighthead Ciarán Parker on a temporary basis due to the injury to Vakh Abdaladze and the likelihood of Furlong and Andrew Porter being on international duty for up to six Tests over a seven-week period in the autumn.

Their depth has been further tested by the loss of Roman Salanoa to Munster during the summer, the circumstances of which clearly still grate with Cullen, who intimated that "outside influences" pressured the 22-year-old Hawaiian-born ex-USA under-20 prop.

“He told me he was staying. I told him I had to deal with another player. So, basically, that’s how it unfolded. I basically took him at his word but he hadn’t actually signed the contract.

“I don’t know what sort of pressure he was under in the background, but he left us compromised. I was up front with him from day one, so he knew. If players want to go that’s completely their own business. I’m not going to tell them what’s best for their careers, they can decide that for themselves.

“He knew there was an effect for someone else, an effect for the players we have here and I can’t say what sort of pressure he was being put under in the background. You’d want to ask him himself,” said Cullen, somewhat pointedly.

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Seán Cronin, Ed Byrne, Michael Bent, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin.