Leinster continue domestic supremacy and look to raise bar in Europe

Leo Cullen points out how side failed to back-up Pro 14 win against Saracens last year

Leinster like to share the trophy-lifting around; well, if only among their own squad members anyway. A fourth Guinness Pro14 title in a row and a ninth trophy in the decade since Munster last lifted one ensured that this time the honour could be shared by the record-breaking Devin Toner, Scott Fardy and Michael Bent following Saturday's latest dissection of their auld rivals.

For sure this was a clear signal that the trio could all be moving on at the end of the season but equally certain is that the Leinster machine will motor on remorselessly. Once again it showed no signs of stuttering in the course of this one-sided 16-6 victory.

About the only downside were the circumstances that decreed this could not be enjoyed in front of a full house to be followed by a proper, end-of-season celebration.

"It's the fans that make these occasions and we all hope we can get back to a full house," admitted Leo Cullen, a serial winner as captain and now coach. "How that develops over the next number of months is anyone's guess. But, we'll try and do that as best we can.

We didn't manage the transition from winning the final against Ulster to playing a quarter-final of Europe particularly well

“The players get a bit of a special moment, it’s like a private party for them really. They’re celebrating as a group there, but at some point really quickly we’ll have to turn the page into next week,” added Cullen, in reference to the six-day turnaround before hosting Toulon next Friday at the same empty RDS in the last 16 of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Cullen noted the return from injury of Sergio Parisse, now 37, in Toulon's 54-16 loss away to Lyon earlier on Saturday afternoon in a game distorted by an early red card for Ma'a Nonu, now 38, for elbowing Jean-Marc Doussain in the face in a frustrated reaction to being obstructed off the ball.

Toulon were also missing French captain Charles Ollivon as well as Test teammates Baptiste Serin, Swan Rebbadj, Romain Taofifenua, and Jean-Baptiste Gros, all of whom were involved in last Friday's delayed Six Nations finale when losing to Scotland.

“We didn’t manage the transition from winning the final against Ulster to playing a quarter-final of Europe particularly well,” said Cullen in reference to last September’s defeat by Saracens. “So hopefully we can learn from that as a group and be a little bit better this time. The challenge is still massive.”

Encouragingly, Johnny Sexton should be okay after apparently completing his HIA, by which stage there were only a few minutes left.

By contrast, Peter O’Mahony’s cut leg looked of more concern for Johann van Graan, who admitted: “He is struggling a bit. He has a deep cut to his leg – it doesn’t look well.”

We're looking forward to getting back home tonight, deal with the disappointment because it is very disappointing for all of us

In contrast to Toner, Fardy and Bent, there was no farewell parting gift of winners medals for CJ Stander and Billy Holland, and after this most sobering of defeats to Leinster – their ninth in 10 games under Van Graan’s watch – Munster face the daunting prospect of a last 16 tie against Top 14 champions and pacesetters Toulouse next Saturday which, without fans, will be missing its Thomond Park factor.

“Toulouse are a fantastic rugby team and they are flying at the moment, you’ve just got to look at the players that they have,” said Van Graan. “That’s sport, you know, and we’ve just got to dust ourselves off, take the next 48 hours to deal with this.

“In a normal season this would be the end of the season and now we’ve got Toulouse next weekend. So that’s just the way it is and the way that things have been restructured because of this pandemic.

“We’re looking forward to getting back home tonight, deal with the disappointment because it is very disappointing for all of us. You don’t get over a loss like this too quickly. If you lose in a final you’re so close but you are so far so we’ve just got to deal with it and start again with Toulouse.”

These two will meet again in the first round of the Rainbow Cup just three weeks hence (could the organisers not at least have put it back a couple of rounds?) another hybrid competition invented to seal the €6 million in South African TV monies and act as a dry run for next season’s expansion to incorporate their four former Super Rugby franchises.

Where it leaves Munster and the rest is a moot point, but presuming a Pro 16 comes into existence next season it certainly won’t be a Leinster procession to a fifth title in a row. And even Leinster welcome that.

“For the credibility of the competition we play in, for the profile of the competition it is only going to be positive,” said Cullen.

“If you’ve been to South Africa, it is one of the biggest rugby markets in the world. They’re the world champions, they’ve so many players that have played in the World Cup-winning team that will be representing those four teams – so, yeah, it’s going to be a massive challenge and that’s what we all want. To test ourselves against the best that’s out there.”

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