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Saturday 1 October 2016

Odds stacked against Blues

But Cullen believes his squad now is stronger

Billy Holland of Munster, Isa Nacewa of Leinster, John Muldoon of Connacht and
Tommy Bowe of Ulster at the launch of the Guinness PRO12 Championship at the
Aviva Stadium in Dublin yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Billy Holland of Munster, Isa Nacewa of Leinster, John Muldoon of Connacht and Tommy Bowe of Ulster at the launch of the Guinness PRO12 Championship at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile

It will take one almighty transformation for Leinster to trade in what they should have done last season for what they want to do at the end of the coming one in the PRO12 League final on May 27 2017 at the Aviva Stadium.

A quick glance at their 'Player Movement' summary reveals how Leinster have lost 19 from last season, four to retirement, including three internationals in Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan, and Kevin McLaughlin, and eight to other clubs.

Central characters Ian Madigan, Ben Te'o and Mary Moore have been lost to heavy-spending suitors.

To counter this, coach Leo Cullen has signed four, most notably Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park, as well as upgrading five graduates of the Academy.

On the face of it, Leinster look weaker at a time when Ulster and the Scarlets appear to have recruited best.

Cullen disagrees: "I would see us as having a stronger squad. Sometimes you can get confused by numbers," he said.

"I just think they are a competitive group of players, who are really ambitious, and it's important we have a framework where they can be as good as they can possibly be."

The lessons of his first season as head coach have certainly been further enhanced by the review handed down by Graham Henry.

"I learned a hell of a lot last year. It is just about having a really clear plan for the players, so that when they go out to perform, their heads are not overly cluttered.

"We've got guys in Irish camp at the moment. They'll come back into us.

"Some of them will play potentially against Bath on Friday. Some of them will play the following week. The early rounds of the PRO12 is about trying to build momentum, making sure we're in a good spot, as we go into those two European games."

For sure, the competitiveness of the l eague is a rising tide. "How many teams could get in the top four? You could say eight or nine," said Cullen.

"Then, there's just two games (semi-final and final) and they are all about on the day."

Connacht coach Pat Lam iss quite right to accept they "have a target on our backs."

It will take a monumental effort for the champions to go back-to-back as they look to convince Bundee Aki to do what Robbie Henshaw didn't in staying at the Western province beyond this season.

"My philosophy and vision of the game doesn't change," said Lam.

The annexing of Connacht's first trophy has certainly brought increased expectation about what they will do in the PRO12, even in the Champions Cup.

"There is a real buzz around the place, a lift on what we achieved.

"All we can control is what we do every day," said Lam

Dividends

It is this short-term view that paid the richest dividend last May. It goes without saying the PRO12 needs at least one Irish province to make the final.

Rassie Erasmus will be tasked with taking Munster into the final pair.

The South African is all about bringing change.

"Munster always get measured from the eras when they were great. We must be realistic.

"We have taken the good from the past and are changing things we can improve on."

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has jumped the queue of contenders by making the two best signings in the League in All Black Charles Piutau and Springbok Marcel Coetzee in what is a great start to their pre-season.

"There are challenges that will pop up throughout the year. Hopefully, we are bigger than those challenges," said Kiss.

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