That may be bad news for Benetton — who won their 10th PRO14 game last weekend — who are also pushing for a play-off spot in a season that has seen them cast aside their ‘also ran’ status.
Michael Bradley’s men stayed with a disjointed Leinster side up to half-time on Saturday, but were blown away in the second half, as the hosts took control and their bench twisted the knife. Seven tries in all were scored, but the most important detail may be how Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and Devin Toner all came through the tie unscathed. With the visit of Scarlets, for the Champions Cup semi-final, just 12 days away, Cullen needs to keep the province’s medical team as quiet as possible.
“Last week, we came off a Sunday game and we’d to manage the players. Some of them were stiff and sore. The lads who doubled up games, some didn’t train until Thursday,” he said after the win over Zebre.
“There’s a balance to be found between preparation and being physically ready and this week we’ll have a better week and that’ll hopefully lead to a better performance against a Benetton team that is doing very well.”
A play-off spot is still in Benetton’s sights, but the biggest obstacle to a Leinster win these days is Leinster themselves.
Cullen spoke of maintaining “Leinster standards” against Zebre — though motivation may have been hard to come by — and, while it was far from perfect, a bonus point win is not to be sniffed at, with a race to top Conference B still ongoing. The guaranteed starters did their job, but there were also others putting their hands up, such as Max Deegan, the latest Leinster No 8 to impress. He scored two tries on Saturday — one a sharp, attentive score in the mould of Conor Murray’s against Toulon — and is making it harder and harder to ignore his calls. His European debut came off the bench against Saracens, a decision that showed Cullen’s faith in the 21-year-old.
“I know it was just a few minutes, but what an experience for him,” Cullen said of his Euro debut. “Max is a serious talent and he’s got a lot of exposure this season, so it’s [about] making sure he’s taking those positive steps all the time.”
Deegan’s first try came seconds into the second half and his second on the hour mark earned the try bonus point. Three more followed, from James Lowe – his ninth in 10 caps — Vakh Abdaladze and Bryan Byrne, two props making an impact off the bench. Leinster remain four points clear of second-placed Scarlets after the Welsh side’s win over Glasgow Warriors on Saturday afternoon, keeping the race for the top spot in Conference B wide open.
B Daly (Rep: C Frawley 44-49); A Byrne, R O’Loughlin (Rep: G Mullin 66), C O’Brien (Rep: C Frawley 66), J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park (Rep: N McCarthy 61); C Healy (Rep: P Dooley 54), J Tracy (Rep: B Byrne 54), T Furlong (Rep: V Abedaladze 54); D Toner (c) (Rep: R Molony 62), M Kearney; Josh Murphy, D Leavy (Rep: P Timmins 62), M Deegan.
M Minozzi; G Di Guilio, G Bisegni, F Afamasaga, M Bellini; C Canna (Rep: S Bordoli 64), M Violi (Rep: G Palazzani 62); A Lovotti (Rep: C Ah-Nau 64), O Fabiani (Rep: L Luus 27), D Chistolini (Rep: R Tenga 54); L Krumov, G Biagi (c) (Rep: E Bello 59); V Bernabo, J Sarto, D Sisi.