English giants present same but different challenge for Leinster

This will be the fifth meeting of the sides and the Irish province has won all four to date. None have been easy though...
English giants present same but different challenge for Leinster

DRESS REHEARSAL: Luke McGrath during the Leinster captain’s run at Sandy Park in Exeter. Leo Cullen says his players want to achieve on the biggest stage in Europe. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

Exit Saracens, enter Exeter. Leinster’s bogey side have receded into the darkness of England’s second tier. Into their place today steps a side that harbours even greater reason to dislike their shared enemy and one that presents just as large a challenge to the four-time champions.

Leinster do at least have history on their side this time.

This will be the fifth meeting of the sides and the Irish province has won all four to date. None have been easy, the 10-point win recorded at Sandy Park in December of 2018 proving to be the most comprehensive on the scoreboard but much tighter in real terms.

Almost 30 months on and the magnitude of that statement win in Devon still bears commendation. Exeter were unbeaten at home in 12 months but the visitors went toe to toe with them in a bruising, physical and tight game and prevailed.

Exeter have expanded their playbook and personnel pool since but they remain now as they were then: a side built on exceptional physicality and consistency of execution in the trenches and matching that remains the starting point this afternoon.

As noted already, Exeter have added nuance to their arsenal with Stuart Hogg the apex of a back three pyramid that adds a deep-lying threat, out wide and otherwise, to a Leinster side that has yet to live up to the class of 2018 by claiming a European title.

All told, not a massively different threat to that once posed by Saracens.

“They have quite a systematic way to attack in the middle third of the field,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. “Saracens will play much more of a squeeze-in. Defensively, they have some similarities. All the English teams have a strong attention to detail around setpiece, which serves the team well on the big day, as we’ve seen on many occasions.”

Exeter have almost cornered the market for effectiveness in the opposition 22 but prevention is better than any cure and Lyon killed themselves in last week’s round of 16 defeat by conceding scrum penalties that established prime field position.

Cullen doesn’t need telling any of this. He has made the point numerous times this year, and again this week, about how Saracens’ dominance at the setpiece all but won last autumn’s quarter-final in Dublin for the visitors before Leinster ever got to fire a shot.

All eyes, then, on Mathieu Raynal.

Leinster brace for this one having sat out last weekend’s fixtures, Toulon’s Covid issues prompting a late cancellation of their game at the RDS, and Cullen has named a side showing just the one change to the XV that had been so primed for action eight days ago.

Scott Fardy, who featured in those back-to back meetings at the end of 2017, for Ryan Baird adds experience to the pack while Exeter have been able to name the Simmonds brothers, Sam and Joe, despite slight injury doubts over them this week.

All told, this may well be the toughest assignment in Europe right now. Leinster certainly haven’t faced anything like this measure of mission this season. Montpellier and Northampton were swatted aside pre-Christmas. So too Munster in the PRO14 final.

If that’s a concern then the same could surely be said for the hosts. Yes, the Premiership may be a more competitive league than the PRO14, but how many Leinsters have Rob Baxter’s lads come up against in recent months?

Another titanic arm wrestle awaits. Leinster are a few colour cards of a full deck with Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and Caelan Doris among the absentees. A win of any stripe would be seismic. It might even put to bed the nightmares Saracens caused this last two years.

“Ehm, don’t look back in anger,” Cullen laughed.

“It’s just (about) controlling what we can control now. It’s the next game. So, whatever happens, we’ll turn our attention again, but it means so much to the group now. They want to be successful. They want to achieve on the biggest stage and this is the biggest stage for club rugby in the northern hemisphere.”

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