Leo Cullen: We need to be switched on the whole time

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen

Reasons to be fearful for Leinster today?

Well, plenty if you’re superstitious. Leo Cullen’s side lost the last time they played in Scotland, against Edinburgh in March. They lost their last final, against Saracens. They also lost their last decider in ‘enemy territory’, to Munster in 2011.

Oh, and they lost the last time they played Glasgow, in Dublin last month.

Those of a more optimistic bent will counter with some merit that the last time these sides met whilst at full strength was actually the pair of Champions Cup fixtures midway through last season, which Leinster won comfortably.

The truth is that even those games make for unreliable barometers, as Dave Rennie was only in the door a few months as Warriors head coach at the time. They are a better side now and there is an argument that Leinster aren’t quite as good.

But both pitch up at ‘Paradise’ today with questions to answer on the back of defeats to Saracens: Leinster in the Champions Cup final and Glasgow across three meetings with Mark McCall’s side in this season’s European competition.

The Scots found themselves doing progressively worse across their cracks at the English outfit. Leinster, though? They are still kicking themselves for having let slip a 10-0 lead in the 10 minutes before half-time in Newcastle.

Much was made of the Sarries rearguard and power on both sides of the ball that day and among the other reasons attributed to Leinster’s second-half travails was the perceived tightness of the St James’ Park pitch.

The reality is that Newcastle’s surface is just a metre shorter than the Aviva Stadium and, while Celtic Park is three metres tighter in terms of width, the sense is that there will be more rugby played here than on the Toon a fortnight ago.

“If you go by the season, both teams love to play,” said Jonathan Sexton. “Glasgow play from everywhere, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ball in play time. Every time we’ve played them to now, even in the RDS a few weeks ago, a lot of ball in play time, both teams going at each other and, obviously with the atmosphere, it’s a massive occasion, isn’t it?

“Glasgow, in terms of them, it’s the biggest occasion they had, probably ever really, when you look at it.

A home final in Celtic Park, it’s incredible. It’s up there for us as well. There’s a big affiliation for Celtic in Ireland and a lot of us would have grown up watching games here and dreaming to play here and it’s great to get the chance to do it. Once in a life time, I think, is what I’m really trying to say.

The venue continued to play a pivotal role in the pre-game narrative yesterday, with Leo Cullen opening Leinster’s media conference with an apology for his seemingly off-the-cuff remark last week that all of Glasgow’s players were Rangers fans.

No wonder then that Sexton opted out of a — pun not intended — firm response when asked if he was a Celtic supporter himself. The out-half joked that he might find himself making his own contrite statement this morning were he to do so.

The reality is that the respect between the sides extends both ways. Cullen has long been familiar with the Rennie template, having spent time observing his methods with a Chiefs side that was winning Super Rugby titles before launching his own coaching career.

The Leinster boss was impressed more recently with the patience the Warriors displayed in putting 50 points on Ulster in their semi-final, building pressure slowly but surely in the course of racking up seven tries at Scotstoun.

Aggressive in the contact areas, they ally this focus on what they call ‘brutality’ with a back line orchestrated by two highly creative half-backs in Ali Price and Adam Hastings and complemented by the input of centre Sam Johnson and full-back Stuart Hogg’s clever lines.

“For us, we need to make sure that we’re really switched on the whole time and we’re not being taken out around the ruck, so we’re able to get defenders on our feet and we are able to deal with the threats that are in front of us,” said Cullen.

It’s a big ask for Leinster, who have lost more league finals than they’ve won, against a side that hasn’t lost a league game since January 5 and enjoyed some real continuity in terms of personnel and selection this last six weeks.

Ultimately, though, it was a surprise when the Irish province lost the whip hand against Saracens and it’s hard to see them being so careless again if they find themselves with their necks in front in Scotland today.

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