Leo Cullen ready for ‘huge challenge’ against old friends Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes

Leo Cullen ready for ‘huge challenge’ against old friends Ronan O’Gara and Jono Gibbes

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Leo Cullen described Leinster’s away trip to La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals as a great challenge after the draw sent the head coach into a head-to-head with former Ireland team-mate Ronan O’Gara.

Leinster’s quest for a fifth European title will have to take them past the Top14 title contenders, with Munster legend O’Gara La Rochelle’s head coach and former Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes their director of rugby.

Yesterday’s draw for the last four came a day after Leinster produced an impressive come-from-behind 34-22 quarter-final win at reigning champions Exeter Chiefs, with a trip to France a dubious reward for their efforts on English soil.

Having beaten Gloucester at Kingsholm in the round of 16, La Rochelle enjoyed home advantage for their quarter-final and put Sale Sharks to the sword with a seven-try 45-21 win on Saturday that ensured progress to their maiden Champions Cup semi-final.

“Their win on Saturday against a very good Sale side was impressive and we have a big three weeks of preparation ahead of us now,” Cullen said. 

“Obviously Ronan and Jono, two men we know very well, have been building a great side there and it will be a huge challenge going there and winning in France. But this is where we want to be, competing against the very best sides in Europe, and we very much look forward to the challenge of the coming three weeks and building towards that game.”

The tie at Stade Marcel Deflandre will be on the weekend of April 30 to May 1-2, with the exact dates and kick-off times to be finalised by organisers EPCR in the coming days.

Toulouse, also four-time European champions, were given a home draw following their 21-12 away win at Clermont Auvergne yesterday and will face first-time semi-finalists Bordeaux-Begles, who knocked out last season’s runners-up Racing 92 earlier yesterday with a late penalty from Mathieu Jalibert to seal a 24-21 win at Stade Chaban-Delmas.

In the Challenge Cup, Ulster must return to the English East Midlands following their win at Northampton Saints on Saturday after the draw pitted them in a trip to Leicester Tigers at Welford Rd.

Cullen will hope to have at least some of his injured frontliners back in selection for the semis. Captain Johnny Sexton added to Leinster’s concerns after failing a first-half head injury assessment at Sandy Park, the fly-half set to follow return-to-play protocols and finding himself in the same position as fellow Ireland internationals Caelan Doris and James Ryan, who have spent extended periods sidelined with concussion symptoms.

‘The biggest thing is we’re trying to take care of all the guys,” Cullen said. “Caelan and James are pretty close to a return now so Johnny, again, similar to all the guys. We just have to make sure we look after them in the right manner.” 

Among those also missing from the Exeter win were Garry Ringrose (ankle) and Will Connors (knee) and Cullen added: “I can’t speak specifically but generally hopefully a good chunk of the guys who are injured will be back for our next game against Munster in round one of the Rainbow Cup (on April 23).”

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