Leinster captain Leo Cullen has called for focus if his side are to avoid another December wobble in Europe.
The three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain saw his province’s bid for a third consecutive victory brought to an end last season with back-to-back defeats to Clermont Auvergne at the same stage of the campaign.
This time around Leinster, unbeaten in Pool 1 after October wins over Ospreys and Castres, must travel to Northampton Saints for Saturday evening’s encounter before the English high-fliers make the return trip to the Aviva Stadium seven days later.
“This is the part of the season when we came unstuck last year, if you look back on those two Clermont games,” Cullen said yesterday.
“Going back over a number of years, Leinster were very guilty of crumbling around January time. You had a lot of poor results at the tail end of the Heineken Cup [pool stage].
“These back-to-back games, especially for ourselves and Northampton, could be crucial for deciding who comes out of this group. It is a very critical time of the year where there are other distractions going on. But, it is important that we stay focused.”
Cullen, who would have completed his first 80 minutes of the campaign last weekend in the league win over Scarlets were it not for a yellow card, is under no illusions about the size of the physical challenge Northampton present on their home turf, from a pack featuring England’s Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood, as well as USA Eagle Samu Manoa.
“They’ve got plenty of quality there. Set-piece with these guys is always a massive challenge. We know we need to be on our mettle whoever is playing this weekend.”
Leinster will be close to full-strength for the trip to the English east midlands, with head coach Matt O’Connor welcoming back his full Ireland contingent save for Fergus McFadden, who broke a bone in his hand against Australia.
There were only light casualties in the 36-19 win over Scarlets at the RDS with both tight head prop Martin Moore and centre Gordon D’Arcy withdrawn as precautionary measures.
Ian Madigan, 10 points short of 400 for Leinster, will vie for the fly-half berth with Jimmy Gopperth, with Isaac Boss back on duty to fight it out with Eoin Reddan for the No 9 shirt.
And with Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Dave Kearney also back in contention alongside D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, South African Zane Kirchner and Australian Lote Tuqiri, that will cause quite a selection conundrum for O’Connor as he formulates a back line to unlock a Northampton side unbeaten in seven games in all competitions.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved