Familiar stage, but an unfamiliar feeling for underdogs Leinster
Familiar stage, but an unfamiliar feeling for underdogs Leinster

Familiar stage, but an unfamiliar feeling for underdogs Leinster

LEO CULLEN STARTED by raising an eyebrow to a quote from Brian O’Driscoll. Minutes later, Sean Cronin found himself comparing his current employers to Connacht.

This is a very different build-up than Leinster are accustomed to for a crunch European fixture.

“Not many people are giving us much of a shot by the sounds of it,” says Cullen, enduring a testing time in his first year as forwards coach.

“But I’ve been in this situation before where people write you off. We’ll go out and prepare, we go in with a clear plan into the game and the lads are in really good spirits, despite losing at the weekend, and excited by the prospect of going over to Marseille.”

The former captain’s furrowed brow came thanks to O’Driscoll’s assertion on Newstalk that the game ought to be viewed as “a freebie“; a no-lose situation, a time to go out swinging for better or worse.

“I’m hoping it will be pretty because that’s the way traditionally Leinster will always want to play,” Cullen added.

“As a former second row forward, I’d be happy to see us kick six penalties and win the game. We’ll go out with the intention of playing as we do every week, but sometimes it doesn’t always pan out like we prep. So we’ll see. We have full faith in the game managers, that they can make the adjustments on the day.”

A key component of Cullen’s plan for set-piece solidity and gainline advantages, Cronin brought up his Connacht days to illustrate the exemplary professionalism in Toulon’s ranks – when they visited Galway in 2010. With the West awakened in the conversation, the hooker was soon asked to ponder the underdog qualities of Leinster compared to his former employers across the Shannon.

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“It is unusual here in Leinster to be so much the underdog going in to a match. It’s not the usual scenario. At the Bath game, people were giving us a 50-50 flip of a coin. We’ve moved into that territory suddenly.

“It doesn’t effect the mindset, we know we’ve got to bring in the desire and intensity to go down there. It’s 15 on 15 on the pitch. They’re an awesome side, but we have to have a bit of belief and put on the performance of a few seasons in there.”

‘Belief’… ‘excited’… ’15 on 15′: These are the classic proclamations of an underdog who know that an awful lot will have to go their way before they come away with a win.

Leinster are only too aware that, even as the most recent previous champion, Toulon are by some distance the benchmark in Europe at present.  Going down in that quarter-final in Stade Mayol was a chastening experience indeed.

And there’s the thing. Fall narrowly to the best team in Europe and the season has been a miserable failure. Perform brilliantly and pull off a momentous, unlikely victory away from home and the entire season is shaded with the same rosy tint. A two point swing makes the difference for a year’s worth of work.

Cronin makes the point that games like these are the reason players love to play in this competition, but the hosts in Marseille will be the only side expecting to enjoy themselves in the Sunday sunshine on the Cote D’Azur.

“Listen, it’s semi-final of Europe, an unbelievably exciting occasion – no one is under any sort of illusions about the enormity of the challenge, but that’s why we turn up every day, is to be in these situations; in the last four teams in Europe,.

“It hasn’t been particularly pretty for us to get to his point, but we’re here and we’ve got a – what did you call it? – a ‘freebie.’”

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