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Leinster Rugby boss Leo Cullen believes that the gap between his side and the rest of the United Rugby Championship is closing.
Leinster have won the competition four times in a row and are looking to make it five with a victorious URC campaign this season.
In that time, they have won the Champions Cup once and also finished runners-up in the European competition.
However, their performance last week against Dragons at Rodney Parade was undeniably poor and it brought question marks over where the province stands in the league, even though they are still top dogs.
The reigning Pro14 champions came away with four points in a 7-6 win but their attack did not click after Max Deegan’s score in the 14th minute.
Cullen believes that the gap between Leinster and the rest of the league is narrowing and puts it down to the structure of the new-look URC.
“I don’t know, but there’s a human nature involved. It’s one of the great unknowns,” Cullen said in Friday’s pre-match press conference.
“A team will always steal a march at various different stages, whether that’s slight tweaks in terms of the laws and how they’re interpreted – certain teams adapt quicker and then others catch up and the gaps close.
“There’s the competition, recruitment, one team falls off and another rises. That’s just sport.
“That’s why it’s so hard to stay at the top for so long because I’m hearing lots of different teams out there saying ‘We want trophies, we want trophies… our plan this year is to win trophies’, there’s 16 teams all trying to do the same thing ultimately. Do all 16 teams all believe they can win a trophy? Plenty of them do.
“So you’ve got to try and stay ahead of the competition at all times and the competition is always trying to challenge.
“I definitely think there’s a narrowing for sure, the way the competition is structured in particular means there’s less moving parts.
“You’d [have played] teams at different stages [in the past] and they might be missing X amount of players, but there’s no clash with the internationals now and that’s the most obvious change, and slightly less games is a change as well.
“Last year there was a certain war of attrition element to the season because there was so many internationals. The four normal Tests plus those Six Nations Tests, six Tests and finishing the previous season.
“Hence why we used a very big number of players last year, so it’s hard to imagine we’ll use that many this season looking at it now.”
However, their depth will still be strong and Cullen shows faith in that with his selection for Leinster’s clash with Zebre.
13 changes have been made to the side that started in Wales last week, including 11 players making their season debuts.
Adam Byrne returns after a long time on the sideline and will get to start in front of the fans at the RDS Arena, while Harry Byrne and Jordan Larmour are also back from injury.
Devin Toner will make his first appearance of the 17th season of his career and Cullen said that he spoke to the squad earlier this week.
“[Devin] has a huge amount of knowledge that he can share. He actually talked this week, which was great. He’s hugely influential.”
The game will kick-off at 1 pm and will be available to watch live on RTÉ 2, Mediaset, Premier Sports, SuperSport and URC TV.