Cullen warns discipline key to pass France test

LEO CULLEN was wandering through Leinster’s administrative offices this week when his eyes were drawn to one of the many game-day pictures that adorn the walls.

The image in question was taken eight years ago at the very same Stade Marcel Michelin where Joe Schmidt’s side find themselves tomorrow. For a moment, the Leinster captain was transported back to a day that, for all the province’s success since, remains rich in significance.

Cullen’s thought on seeing the snapshot was just how young he appeared in it and that relative inexperience and youthfulness was symbolic of a Leinster side still trying to find its feet on the continent.

Prior to that, the Irish province had played six European ties in France and lost all by an average of almost 29 points and it wasn’t as if there were many signs to point towards that duck being broken against Clermont, known then as Montferrand.

Leinster’s previous jaunt to the country had resulted in a 43-7 loss to Toulouse the season before and Montferrand didn’t promise much better — they had won all of their 20 European home games.

The visitors — whose best effort in France had been a 19-point loss — were still trailing by four as the clock swung past the 80-minute mark before a Denis Hickie try and Brian O’Meara conversion secured victory.

A critical glass ceiling had finally been broken.

Cullen, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan all survive from that day. Brian O’Driscoll would have made it a quartet had injury not intervened but Leinster may find comfort in the fact that they won that time without another talisman, in the shape of Malcolm O’Kelly.

“I’d played an Ireland ‘A’ game there before and we were beaten by France,” says Cullen. “I played down there with Leicester as well (and won).

“I remember specifically there was a pocket of Leinster supporters down there and hopefully we’ll have a decent support this weekend as well. We’ve 40,000 tickets already sold for next week. It’s great the way the thing has built.”

It was a victory eked out on the twin pillars of defence and patience. Leinster defended stoically for long stretches, whether through deference to their daunting surroundings or sheer necessity, before firing their main broadside right at the death. They embark on this latest visit on the back of two wins in Pool Two and knowing that there would be no real shame in coming away with a losing bonus point. However Cullen and Leinster have come a long way in those eight years and will hardly entertain such limited ambitions.

Two games from the more recent past seem to have provided Leinster with a more palatable and admirable template for their task at a ground which remains a daunting proposition for domestic and foreign assailants.

“It’s just important that we don’t sit back. They have a team of such quality, we just can’t afford to sit back and watch them play. It’s similar to when Ireland played New Zealand here a few weeks ago. Eventually they’ll wear us down and it’s important that we really control the ball when we have it.

“Saracens, when they went there to play this year, they really had a go at them as well. They really controlled the ball and really stretched them. They were probably unlucky not to get more from the game so I think that’s pretty important as to how we approach the game.”

If there is to be a key, it will be one marked discipline. Leinster squeezed by Clermont in a Dublin quarter-final last year thanks mainly to the profligacy of out-half Brock James who left a season’s worth of kickable scores behind him at the RDS.

The less unpredictable Morgan Parra will be the man charged with dissecting the posts this weekend, however, and Cullen will no doubt harbour memories of Gerald Merceron’s 20-point haul at the French ground back in 2002.

“When you give away penalties you can give away points. In Morgan Parra they have a particularly accurate goal kicker. We talked during the week about not giving them an opportunity to build momentum. It puts us in a position where we must defend more.

“It is very important that we don’t sit back and watch Clermont play. They are a team that like to come out early and throw everything at you. We have to stand up to that. It is also important we impose ourselves on the game. Control the ball when we have it and be disciplined.”

Possibly of more concern to the knot of travelling supporters will be the contest in the scrum, an area in which Leinster suffered in the knockout fixtures against Clermont and Toulouse at the tail end of last season.

“Our scrums have been going well this year,” says Cullen. “Since (Mike Ross) has got his chance at the start of the season, he has revelled in being the leader of our front row, the leader of the scrum. He puts in a huge amount of time and work. I think he is really excited about the challenge this weekend. I’m sure everyone will row in behind him.”

As always in France, it will be have to be all for one and one for all.

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