Leo Cullen warns Saints won’t be easy prey

Leinster have enjoyed some great days at the expense of Northampton Saints but Leo Cullen has learned to approach games against the English club with his eyes open and on full alert.

Leo Cullen warns Saints won’t be easy prey

Leinster have enjoyed some great days at the expense of Northampton Saints but Leo Cullen has learned to approach games against the English club with his eyes open and on full alert.

It goes back more than a dozen years, to the 2006-07 season when the current Leinster head coach was nearing the end of his two-year playing stint with Leicester Tigers who were zeroing in on yet another league title.

Saints were struggling that year, so much so that they would end up being relegated, and yet one of just two wins they claimed on the road was a 10-9 seat-of-the-pants job against their old midland rivals up at Welford Road.

“I was probably captain of the team,” Cullen laughed. “I remember the game. Jeepers, we missed so many chances, missed a couple of kicks in front of the posts, I won’t call the people out by name. You can find them if you want. You can find the footage.”

Cullen has crossed paths with them five times since as a player and coach. He was captain again in 2011 when Leinster produced that famous turnaround in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff and he was coach for the back-to-back thumpings this time two seasons ago.

An earlier pair of December dates, back in 2013-14, seem more significant now though as the teams face up to another set of encounters in Europe. Leinster hammered their hosts 40-7 first up that year but then lost by nine in the Aviva a week later.

The Irish side still topped their pool but the unexpected reversal in Dublin cost them a home berth in the knockout stages and they would slip out of the reckoning at the quarter-final stage with a convincing away defeat to Toulon.

Lesson learned, you would think.

“In certain circumstances, a losing bonus point is not the end of the world,” said Cullen ahead of tomorrow’s game in England.

It’s not great but for us, whatever situation we find ourselves in, it’s just about making sure we try and maximise every point we can from the fixture.

There is no way Leinster will be thinking about a bonus point this weekend. It’s not how they think or operate. Cullen has said that they can play far better than they have so far this season, despite their unbeaten status, and now would be a good time to crank it up that extra notch.

Northampton have been up and down for far too many years now but a sense of equilibrium has been reached this last season and a bit, with the arrival of Chris Boyd in the role of Director of Rugby and the contribution of the staff around him.

Matt Ferguson has experience as a scrum coach far in excess of his 39 years. Phil Dowson has provided a sense of continuity as the long-serving forwards coach while Cullen played with attack coach Sam Vesty at Leicester and always knew what a creative mind he possessed.

Vesty has been linked with a possible role with England in the event Eddie Jones loses Scott Wisemantel to Australia but it is very much Boyd’s stamp that Cullen sees when he studies the Saints, and one that is a convincing match for a Hurricanes side which the Kiwi coached to a Super Rugby title.

“If you look at their playing squad, it’s almost a bit of a mirror image of that, isn’t it?” says Cullen. “They have the experienced players. (Cobus) Reinach was away with South Africa, and (Dan) Bigger (with Wales). Very experienced half-backs.

“The Franks brothers who have won World Cups, plural, between them. Outside backs like (Taqele) Naiyaravoro and Matt Proctor: he’s been a real standout in Super Rugby over the past few seasons. He’s certainly a player that we would have admired greatly.

“Then they have a lot of young players coming through that they’ve given a lot of chances to; very similar to what we’ve tried to do. They are one of the first English teams for a while to really have that model.”

That strength in depth was apparent last weekend when Leicester were spanked at the Gardens in the Premiership even after Owen Franks, Courtney Lawes, and Biggar had all pulled out and were replaced by a trio of youngsters.

“I have to say, I was really impressed with them,” said Cullen.

Opponents are talked up every week by coaches the world over but there is a ring of truth about Cullen’s admiration ahead of this one. Northampton are top of the Premiership and two-for-two in Pool 1 and they are playing superb, attacking rugby.

This could be a treat.

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