IT may be Christmas Eve but, with a derby against Ulster on the cards for St Stephen’s Day, Leinster’s players and staff will be clocking in for training today just as they would any other Thursday morning.
Michael Cheika’s side sit top of their pool in the Heineken Cup and third in the Magners League, just a point behind Edinburgh and Glasgow, and will bid to build on their current run of good form on Saturday.
“This is the busy time of our season,” said Gordon D’Arcy. “Like soccer teams, with Magners and Heineken Cup, this is where you put yourself into the mix for top-four finishes and coming out of your group. A lot of teams who do well over Christmas in soccer usually end up doing quite well at the end of the season. We’re no different. We want to win three Magners League games and that keeps us right in the top four before the break for the Heineken Cup and coming into the Six Nations.”
It is a punishing schedule but D’Arcy isn’t complaining, which is hardly surprising for a man who spent so long out of the game through injury last year.
“I have to come back to Dublin so I’ll go down to my folks (in Wexford) on Christmas Eve, hang out there, have a nice Christmas morning, head over to the cousins’ house and have a big family Christmas dinner. Then I’ll say the goodbyes and nip off back to Dublin. It’s the business end of the season but there are plenty of people working Christmas Day. A lot of my mates work in restaurants or as guards or nurses. I only have to work for an hour and a half.”
The two bonus-point wins over the Scarlets this month saw Leinster perform at something approaching their best and has led many to believe they will be there or thereabouts in both competitions come May’s trophy presentations.
“The Llanelli matches were do-or-die for us,” D’Arcy said. “If we didn’t get two wins, we were going to severely struggle in the group. What we didn’t want was to be relying on other results from other teams.
“We were very happy with the two wins. The performances? We’re happy with parts of them. We played well in patches in both games but we switched off in quite large chunks of both as well. There is a need for improvement.”
The likelihood is that both Leinster and London Irish will emerge from Pool Six into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals but that will hardly dilute the intensity when the pair meet in the final round at the Madejski Stadium next month, especially with the winner being rewarded with home advantage in the last eight.
“We do have our destiny in our own hands,” said D’Arcy. “If we get two wins we qualify. We’re going to have to improve a huge amount, so at the back of the head you’re going — ‘we need to get better’.
“We beat Llanelli home and away but the scoreline probably put a bit of a gloss on the performance and we won’t get away with playing like that in London in January.”
For now, it is back to the Magners League and the bragging rights that will be on the line at the weekend against an Ulster side that has shipped 61 points and scored only six on its previous two visits to the RDS.
“It’s good to be playing Ulster because you just can’t let your focus up. Ulster always target this game. They love playing Leinster and they love beating us so we have to be on our game to beat those guys.”
Only four points separate leaders Edinburgh and Brian McLaughlin’s side who lie in seventh, making for an exciting finish.
Ulster have named a 24-man squad that does not include Ireland stars Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace for their St Stephen’s Day clash. Ferris is not among the forwards, with Chris Henry, David Pollock and Willie Faloon a possible back-row combination. Ulster academy product TJ Anderson is also an option. In the backs, Ian Humphreys is included but Wallace, who made the trip to Stade Français, is left out, along with Andrew Trimble.
ULSTER squad: Forwards: D Fitzpatrick, B Young, BJ Botha, N Brady, A Kyriacou, E O’Donoghue, D Tuohy, R Caldwell, C Henry, D Pollock, W Faloon, TJ Anderson
Backs: J Smith, C Schifcofske, S Danielli, D Cave, I Whitten, T Nagusa, I Humphreys, N O’Connor, I Boss, P Marshall, C Willis, J Shiells.
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