New-look Leinster looks to show they’re better than before

A quick scoot back 12 months. Leinster and Ulster in a Guinness PRO12 semi-final at the RDS and it ends with a 12-point win for the hosts.

'When an experienced international comes back they know they have to play well.'

Now back to tonight. Another semi-final, this time against the visiting Scarlets, but it is a very different Leinster side detailed to face them.

Only five of those who started against Ulster last May will do so again this evening. Retirements, forced and voluntary, have taken a few, injuries have hobbled others and Ben Te’o decided his career needed to go off on another tangent entirely.

It’s a remarkable turnover and symptomatic of the change that has been carefully managed by the province in such a short period of time. Most incredible of all, though, is the impression that the wholesale alterations haven’t weakened them a jot.

You could actually argue the opposite.

Leo Cullen has used more than 50 players this term and there isn’t a single area of the field where you could say they are treading water with their available personnel. If there is one sector lacking a little stardust it is second row but then they go and leave Devin Toner in reserve.

The line is that the lock is carrying a slight injury suffered in the defeat to Ulster a fortnight ago. Sean O’Brien is another being treated gingerly as he makes it back as far as the bench after hamstring issues, but how many other clubs wouldn’t have gone all the way for a semi-final?

With Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, and Jordi Murphy all unavailable at this point, most coaches would feel obliged to take a punt on the likes of Toner and O’Brien from the start in a semi-final. Few could afford to save that calibre of ammo for the final quarter.

“I think it’s good,” said Cullen. “It’s healthy to have.”

It was noteworthy that the head coach should then point to Saracens, Europe’s market leaders, to back up his point. The English side saw off Clermont Auvergne in last week’s Champions Cup final with some degree of comfort and they did it with a platoon of talent looking on from the stands.

That is the standard required.

“So that’s what we’re trying to build towards here, to have that level of depth. Some of the young guys who come in, some are in around the 20-cap mark now but had only less than the amount you’d count on one hand at the start of the season.

“It’s really important that we’re building in that direction and making it a competitive group so that when an experienced international comes back they know they have to play well. If not, there’s going to be someone snapping at their heels trying to get in the team.”

Jonathan Sexton and Robbie Henshaw were always going to slot back in after spells out but Cullen’s point about the democratic nature of the squad is evident elsewhere. Rory O’Loughlin, who made Ireland’s squad for Japan, hasn’t made the 23. Adam Byrne, who didn’t, starts on the wing.

Fergus McFadden, exceptional since returning from injury, is another who will sit in the stands.

Scarlets will test them all. Wayne Pivac’s pack isn’t the biggest and the expected absence of Jake Ball in the second row from the side named yesterday was compounded with the news that captain, hooker, and proposed Lions tourist Ken Owens will be similarly unavailable.

Despite all that, they are a slick side, one that plays a pleasing and effective brand of rugby, and if they can get some sort of parity up front then they have guys like Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, and Scott Williams who can do damage.

Leinster can play it both ways — with brio or with brute force — but the decision to go with a 6/2 split between forwards and backs on the bench suggests they will be confident of breaking the Welsh region in the tight for as long as that takes.

Cullen’s side went a dozen games unbeaten from Christmas until the loss to Clermont Auvergne late last month. That and the meaningless defeat in Belfast two weeks ago may actually help them here as they look to purge themselves of the mistakes that littered both reversals.

“It is a different game,” said Cullen. “We just need to make sure we’ve learned the lessons from the games where we haven’t quite hit the right notes this year. We can also take confidence from when we do get things right that there is a lot of threats through the team.

“You look back to the semi-final against Clermont, how we managed the breakdown, how we managed the first 20 minutes, in terms of being composed. When you play in these big games it is important that you remember some of the lessons from the review that has gone on in the club.”

Those who don’t won’t be long being overtaken.

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