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Wednesday 11 December 2019

Blues buy Leo's plan

Cullen faces balancing act to keep his troops happy

Scrum coach Robin McBryde, left, in conversation with Head Coach Leo Cullen during Leinster’s squad training at Energia Park in Donnybrook, Dublin
Scrum coach Robin McBryde, left, in conversation with Head Coach Leo Cullen during Leinster’s squad training at Energia Park in Donnybrook, Dublin

Leinster could hardly be in better shape going into another European season. Their form in the PRO14 to date, has been irrepressible.

Nearly every weekend Leinster's true-blue fans have been rewarded with bonus-point victories, and that has been without their marquee players - impressive.

Last weekend's almost one-sided win against a strong Connacht side, who up until then had be motoring along well themselves, was excellent.

Cullen would have been particularly pleased by the role played by Leinster's forwards, with Ronan Kelleher scoring two tries in a man-of-the-match performance, a feat matched by fly-half Ross Byrne.

That away win was the ideal warm-up for Leo Cullen's men for what looks like tougher things to come in Pool 1 of the Champions Cup.

This might be a tricky enough opening match against Italy's best domestic side Benetton Treviso, a team that have caused Leinster some nervous moments in recent years.

The Italian's came to the RDS over the last two years and emerged with a win and a draw, they can also call on the bulk of the Italian players as well as a few overseas add-ins.

Competitive

It's funny how things change. When the draw for Europe came out months ago Cullen would have been reasonably happy, but this pool now looks a lot more competitive given that both Northampton and Lyon are doing well in their domestic leagues. And Benetton still remain the most respected side out of Italy.

Leinster know well the importance of starting these competitions well with home wins a given, and then garnishing bonus points along the way while other teams are left to fight it out.

So despite how the media will portray it, Cullen will insist on a win at least and, hopefully, the maximum five-point haul.

Cullen's main problem is not who he includes this weekend, but rather who to leave out, as his returning Irish players will be anxious to put the recent World Cup in the rear-view mirror and get their careers back on track.

There is also a new Irish coach to impress. For some of the less experienced international players there is only a few weeks to show what they can offer in the new shake-up. For others, especially Leinster's many young guns, they too will want to show Andy Farrell that they are due a chance.

Cullen needs a balancing act, keeping the squad competitive for positions but team spirit high.

Leinster have been playing the sort of rugby that looks like it's great to be a part of, with a combination of disciplined play, coupled with off-loading and power.

This season all players from hooker to fullback have been involved in moving the ball from all areas of the park, but the most promising thing has been that it has been a team effort and not just a bunch of individuals.

Enjoying

Cullen's players look like they are enjoying the game, and the pattern of play. There is a buy-in to the way they approach the game, and that combined with competition for places and camaraderie is hard to beat.

Leinster have reason to ask, what if ? In regards to Saracens fielding overpaid players over the term of their recent European success, players that they may not have been able to keep had they not had the extra financial incentives.

In other sports even the Olympic Games Leinster may have been presented with another title.

But knowing Cullen, he wants to beat the best anyway, and this weekend his team need to grab a bonus- point win just to show the other teams in this pool that they are on a serious mission.

Hard to bet against them.

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