Leo Cullen says there’s no such thing as a meaningless game for Leinster players, ahead of today’s final Champions Cup clash with Wasps at the Ricoh Arena.
The Leinster boss refuses to buy into the ‘dead rubber’ label many have given this game, with the province dead and buried in European terms before Christmas Day.
Four defeats from the four opening Pool 5 games gave Cullen the dubious honour of leading the team to their worst European run, and unfortunately ensured the two games in 2016 would be little more than the fulfilment of fixtures.
However, witness the praise and confidence-building performances of a gaggle of younger players in last week’s victory over Bath, and you can see how Cullen says there’s still something to play for.
Add in a much changed line-up [11 from last weekend] that see Luke Fitzgerald at 13, and Rhys Ruddock in the second row, and it’s clear there’s plenty to prove.
“There is always lots at stake for us, for our players, whether they want to push on to the next level in the Six Nations of whether that’s getting the next opportunity in a Leinster shirt; there is always stacks at stake,” said Cullen.
“It’s business as usual for us. We will prepare for the game as best we can, to put in a good performance, with exactly the same mindset as we had last week.
“Even though there is nothing at stake in terms of qualification there is always something at stake for professional players in this day and age.”
Leinster will also have professional pride to defend, following their 33-6 defeat to Wasps last November in the RDS.
"It was the worst possible start to Cullen’s European adventure as Leinster boss, with three tries conceded, and just two Sexton kicks to shout about.
Even the match report on Leinster’s own website called the performance ‘disappointingly flat’, and it was an unfortunate sign of things to come.
“Every time we go out we want to try and win a game; regardless of what team we have out,” Cullen claimed.
“We were very disappointed the way we went against Wasps in the first round, which led us to a situation where we were scrambling to progress in the pool, and that was very disappointing.”
Wasps have qualification and a home quarter-final in their sights, so there is no chance this will be an easy chance for Leinster to ‘build momentum’ ahead of the departure of their Six Nations players.
But Cullen is keen to highlight the improvements his men have made since first meeting Wasps, while still calling for more — particularly in the opposition red zone, with just three tries in five games.
“Look there has been a steady progress over the pool. We just lost our way and lost our shape a little, a combination of factors that were coming back together against Bath,” he argued.
“Against Toulon, we did create a few more opportunities, particularly from the home game, it’s just being that little bit more clinical.
“The game against Bath, again we had a good few line breaks during the game, it’s just having that little bit more composure inside the 22.
“I’d be a bit more worried if we weren’t creating the opportunities but we definitely are creating chances, it’s just having that bit of a clinical edge.
“We were up against three very good teams,” he added, “There are probably less tries in our pool than there are in the other pools as well, which has to be taken into consideration - just the quality of teams that are there.”
Fresh from not being named Ireland captain, Johnny Sexton will skipper the province today in what is his 100th start for Leinster.
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