THE TABLES HAVE turned. Leinster, three Januarys after a record European defeat to Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, return to Coventry this afternoon bidding to inject further momentum into their Heineken Champions Cup title defence.
The eight-try humiliation in round six three seasons ago brought the curtain down on a nightmare European campaign for Leo Cullen’s side, but Leinster have rebuilt and rebounded to become a heavyweight force again.
Leinster can secure a home quarter-final with a win over Wasps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“The group was very different three years ago, but I wouldn’t like to see us in a situation where we’re back there again,” Cullen says.
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The eastern province arrive in the English Midlands for this Pool 1 encounter [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport] already assured of a quarter-final berth, but the importance of securing home advantage in the last eight cannot be underestimated. Leinster’s sole focus will be on winning.
Wasps, on the other hand, have been on a downward spiral since that 51-10 victory over Cullen’s men in 2016, failing to get out of their pool last season and are now facing up to the reality of going through this campaign without a win to their name.
Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, this week suggested the Premiership’s salary cap is holding the English sides back, thus preventing them from competing with Leinster, who, he made a point of, could beat Toulouse last week without five of their Lions.
Leinster, however, have built their recent success on homegrown foundations, with 19 of Cullen’s matchday 23 today coming through the province’s renowned schools and academy system. Young’s argument carries little substance in this instance.
The visitors are also boosted by the return to fitness of Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Seán O’Brien today, as Cullen makes four changes in personnel from last week’s statement win over Toulouse. Even still, 21 of the squad are senior internationals.
Henshaw has shown remarkable healing powers again to get back from a hamstring injury ahead of schedule and partners Garry Ringrose in midfield, while Toner has shaken off a rolled ankle to start alongside James Ryan in the second row.
O’Brien, Cullen says, is ‘dying to get back’ after recovering from a broken arm to take his place on the replacements bench, and having been named in Ireland’s Six Nations squad during the week will be looking to make a big impact later in the piece.
The other changes see Jamison Gibson-Park deputise at scrum-half for the luckless Luke McGrath, while Jack McGrath is restored to the starting XV having been left out completely last weekend. Cian Healy drops down to the bench.
It is a measure of the level of Leinster’s performance against Toulouse that Cullen has retained the same back three, with Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney all handed starting opportunities again.
Ross Byrne, continuing in the number 10 jersey in the absence of Johnny Sexton, will look to channel the disappointment of missing out on Joe Schmidt’s squad into a standout shift in the pivot. Not that he has to prove anything to anyone, but the 23-year-old will be keen to produce another big performance.
Cullen speaking at Friday’s press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
“I think you can react or respond in many different ways, but at least Ross has a big game in front of him this weekend and he’s got something that’s very much in his control so he can go out and control and prepare as well as he possibly can to give him the best chance of playing well, and then he’s ready and available if something happens to someone else,” Cullen said.
“You know, moping around and feeling sorry for yourself is not going to get you very far. He’ll be able to park that disappointment, you see that with our guys all the time.
“So some guys respond incredibly well to the disappointment of missing out so that when their next opportunity comes along, they’re in a better place because they’ve gone away and worked on some of the things that they potentially had to work on.
“They’re hungrier for it when the next opportunity presents itself. They go out and prepare better. So that’s what he can control.”
Byrne pulled the strings superbly at the RDS in round five, as Leinster seized control of Pool 1 to head into the final round of games with a three-point cushion over Toulouse, who host Bath this afternoon.
Not only was the game plan executed to perfection, but Leinster’s relentless work-rate, energy and ball retention ground previously unbeaten Toulouse into the ground, and the challenge now is to replicate that on the road at the Ricoh.
“It is tough winning away,” Cullen continued. “Teams will set up to make life difficult for us, be very physical.
“We just need to make sure that we’re controlling how we’re playing the game, not allowing teams easy access into the game. That’s how we play in terms of playing loose, giving away turnovers, like we did in Toulouse [round two] at the start of the game.
“Or, we are loose with our discipline as we may have been in Thomond Park to the point where we had one red card and two yellow cards in the first 33 minutes.