Leinster Keep Champions Cup Focus Despite URC Loss


Just a few weeks ago Irish powerhouse Leinster looked set to dominate not only the Vodacom United Rugby Championship but also the Heineken Champions Cup.

Losing just one game in the regular league stages of the URC, few would have bet against them making the final in both competitions - especially with the entire run-in of knockout games in Dublin.

But Munster’s heroic win on Saturday changed all that, and as Leo Cullen’s side start preparing for this weekend’s Champions Cup showdown with defending champions La Rochelle, there is a real possibility that their exceptional season could once again fail to deliver silverware as it did last season.

Last year it was the Bulls that knocked out Leinster in Dublin of the URC and gave the Stormers a home final. This year it was Munster.

Last season it was La Rochelle that did the damage first in the Champions’ Cup final and there was a real belief that that final had taken so much out of Leinster that it made the Bulls’ job easier.

This season the competitions run the other way around, with the semis preceding the Champions’ Cup final, but the same question remains for Cullen. How much danger is there now that Leinster could come up without a trophy for two seasons in a row after dominating so much of the season.

Cullen took a gamble this past weekend and rotated his team. It has been a ploy that has worked over the years and there was no reason to back the system. But in the fifth week of a seven-week knockout stage - longer because the Champions' Cup starts with a round of 16 at knockout phase - it was going to be tough for any team to dominate in both competitions.

Still, the ever-calm Cullen believes his team can pick themselves up and focus on the massive game in Dublin on Saturday against Ronan O’Gara’s side.

"There's a good conversation going on in the dressing-room there among the group. Everyone is excited to get going," he said after the defeat at the hands of Munster.

"Bitterly disappointing to lose this but we have a big final to look forward to now and we have to give everything we have to it. These are special weeks. You enjoy the process of preparing together.

"You would love another couple of weeks together but it is only one week now."

The heavy schedule has played a massive part in proceedings for Cullen and his rotation policy has been part of Leinster’s incredible strength in the season. But like last season, some are seeing chinks in their armour.

Cullen wasn’t going to blame a tough run-in to both finals for the loss.

"It makes it a challenge but we didn't think it was going to be an impossible challenge and that’s why we wanted to take it on. Now we’ve got one game to look forward to.

"We were wondering if we would have two finals to look forward to coming into this game, we don’t, we have one. There’s no point in us dwelling on anything now.

"Credit to Munster, they fought 'til the very end and Jack Crowley knocks over a drop-goal to win the game.

"Fair play to them, in terms of how they evolve their game all the time. From where they were earlier in the season, they've got to a final now - back to South Africa. We wish them well in the final.

"For us now there is one focus. Will that help us now? Yeah, maybe it will help us now. It’s an unbelievably exciting challenge. La Rochelle has been the form team in Europe so it doesn’t get much bigger, does it?," he added.

He was full of praise for Munster, who ended a long run of 11 years without wins in the tournament against their arch-rivals.

“We were very close to it, very close to closing out the game. It’s disappointing we weren’t quite able to do that but again you have to give credit to Munster. There are two teams fighting right to the very end, they nail their opportunity at the death and we don’t get another chance.

“We were very, very close to winning a semi-final. Unfortunately not. Again, back to that cohesion part, they had a more settled group there today and that’s a call that we made and we have to accept the consequences of that now. Munster look strong but we fight our way back in and repel and repel them on numerous occasions so the fight among the lads is great.”

With so much riding on Saturday’s game, Cullen will know he has a fight on his hands. But desperation - a word not often used with his side - may be just the thing he is looking for this week.