Listen to the radio sports bulletins and chats this week and Leinster have barely merited a mention.
Pundits have glossed over this Heineken Champions Cup fixture, at home to Lyon, day after day. Munster’s uphill battle in Paris, Ulster’s free hit in Clermont and Connacht’s do-or-die against Toulouse have all merited far more air time. And rightly so. You don’t need to look for the odds to know that nothing less than a five-point haul is expected of the four-time champions at the RDS.
There are many reasons for this, one of them historical.
Leinster have played host to French opposition in this competition 30 times and lost only five times. Three of thosereversals were recordedbetween 1996 and 2003. Only Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have earned wins in Dublin and both were sides playing at their peak at the time.
Lyon are second in the Top 14, just three points adrift of Bordeaux-Begles, but they are no continental powerhouse. A maximum 10 points from 10 are likely needed if they are to hold any hope of escaping Pool 1 and the team they named doesn’t lend itself to thetheory that that is likely.
Leo Cullen tried to talk up Pierre Mignoni’s second string. Diplomacy demanded it, not logic. There was praise for Etienne Oosthuizen and Hendrik Roodt, journeymen forwards who have bounced around between their native South Africa, Australia and France.
There was a nod to a number of young Frenchmen from the Lyonnais academy and other Top 14 ‘vets — Noa Nakaitaci, Jean-Marcelin Buttin, Jonathan Peillisie and the like – but it wasn’t exactly a stellar cast, or one to strike the fear of God into anyone.
“They have been around the block, so they have plenty of experience there,” said Cullen who named a side with 13 internationals plus James Lowe and Max Deegan. “What their attitude is, I don’t know is the honest answer.
“I’m just speculating like everyone else would be.”
The suspicion with Leinster some weeks is that their greatest threat, if they aren’t zoned in, could be themselves. Unbeaten all season they have scored 30 points on more than ten occasions and the 50-marker has been superseded five times.
There has been no sign of complacency of late. Cullen and others have consistently stressed that they are some way off a complete 80-minute performance but their fallow periods all seem to come at the fag end of games long since wrapped up.
Northampton, Ulster, and Connacht have all been swamped long before the final whistle in the last month. Only Munster have managed to stick with them in that time and, as was the case in Lyon in November, Leinster had the wherewithal to see that through too.
The competition for places at Leinster has long since lapsed into the realm of sporting cliche but there is another driver to spur them on today and that’s the desire to tie up every loose end possible in these pool stages.
It’s three years since Leinster could only draw away to a Castres side with nothing to play for in round six and, as a result, slipped down to third seed. The ripple effect was felt three months later when it forced them to play a semi-final in France which was lost to Clermont Auvergne.
Cullen remembers these things. The need to bag ato-two seeding is understood.
“Certainly it was touched on, that’s for sure. It is hugely important. The home quarter-final is important because, as we have talked about in the past, statistically there is a better chance of winning a quarter-final if you are at home.
“We want to try and stack the deck in our favour and then there are all sorts of benefits as you go deeper into the tournament. For the quarter-finals last year we were ranked third. If Racing had won at home in their quarter-final against Toulouse we would have had to travel to Paris.
“We hadn’t been there before. It’s just trying to control everything that you can.”
Injuries have again deprived them of Jonathan Sexton (medial ligament) and James Ryan (calf) but the former is on course to be fit for Ireland’s opening Six Nations tie against Scotland early in February and the latter may even be available for the tie against Benetton this day next week.
They’ll be fine without them, world-class though both are. For all the talk of youth in blue this term, this is a side loaded with experience.
That includes Jordan Larmour who, while he still looks young enough and innocent enough to be a class prefect, brings bags of big-time nous to the full-back role that is now his by right.
Ross Byrne has yet another chance to embellish his international credentials at ten, Dave Kearney’s rebirth continues on the wing and James Tracy gets another opportunity at hooker with Ronan Kelleher’s continued absence and Sean Cronin again on the bench.
The likes of Ciaran Frawley and Caelan Doris offer further glimpses of the future from off the bench but this is Max Deegan’s big opportunity to shine at No.8 and he looks well set to take it on the back of an impressive Christmas.
“Max started the game over there (in Lyon) in round two as well and it’s a good battle in the back row,” said Cullen.
“But the back row has been very competitive, Will Connors has been excellent over the Christmas games. His neck, he struggled with training this week as well, he wasn’t really in the frame as well. But, again, it’s a really competitive area, and the guys know that.”