Like any derby, Leinster versus Munster is a red letter day on the rugby calendar and though this Saturday’s clash at the Aviva comes early in the season it will be no different, and for Leinster captain Leo Cullen says it has added weight.
It will begin three weeks he says that define the Heineken Cup champions’ season
After a sluggish start culminating in last weekend’s 34-6 thrashing at Connacht, a win on Saturday he says is vital.
“These three weeks are key for us trying to get a bit of momentum going into the season, (starting with) the game this weekend which will lead us into Exeter next weekend,” says Cullen who, as ever, is looking forward to the challenge.
The fixture in fact offers the perfect chance to shake off the early season jitters.
“It’s great to back in the Aviva against probably our biggest rivals Munster. Both teams have come off pretty disappointing results at the weekend but it’s a new week and it’s an exciting challenge this weekend and both teams will be looking to build a bit of momentum before we head into Europe next weekend.”
It’s become something of a routine over the last number of years for Leinster to start slowly, but this year they been particularly sluggish out of the blocks and there is a suggestion that panic is starting to set in.
“We have maybe struggled a little bit at the start of the season the last couple of seasons due to various different reasons but I wouldn’t say there’s panic in the camp. A lot of guys are uneasy, I suppose is the best way of putting it, and everyone’s keen to put in a good performance and try to get a bit of positive momentum going into Europe the following week,” he says.
THREE IN A ROW
Leinster have been widely feted over the summer for their back-to-back Heineken Cup wins but Cullen says that the prospect of winning three-in-a-row doesn’t figure in his thoughts.
“A lot of people make a lot of the three-in-a-row thing, but the season ends – some players come in and some players leave. Everyone’s a year older, some are a little wiser, some others not so much,” he says.
“You start all over again and you set new goals, you have new calls even.
“So it’s a new year and new challenges and so many things present themselves over the course of the year.”
MUNSTER UNDER PENNEY
Munster meanwhile have been busy rebuilding under new coach Rob Penney and Cullen says that they are a different outfit to the one Leinster beat home and away last year.
“Watching them over the last five or six weeks it has been interesting to see how they do evolve and they play with a lot more width. It’s a different way of playing,” he says.
“I looked at a bit of footage yesterday of what they were doing, and keeping their forwards out on the wider channels with a pot of forwards in the middles gets a lot more of their forwards on the ball and they’ve got some good ball players.
“With the width in their game, having guys like Casey Laulala and Keith Earls, who are every evasive quick runners with the likes of Jimmy Downey who’s a very powerful runner – those guys are creating opportunities by bustling tackles and getting off-loads so they’ve a lot of threats across the board.
“Traditionally they’ve based their game on set pieces so that’s going to be there as well and they’ve added a different dimension to their game so it’s going to be interesting how that pans out for them over the course of the year.”
Back in Leinster though the public’s focus is undeniably on the prospect of Leinster lifting the Heineken Cup in the Aviva Stadium next May.
Much has been made in particular of the upcoming matches with old foes, and last years conquered semi-finalists, Clermont Auvergne in the same pool but Cullen says he is looking no further than the next three weeks.
“Clermont seems like a million miles away,” he says, “these three weeks are key for us. Try to get a bit of momentum going into the game this weekend which will lead us into Exeter next weekend who are a bit of an unknown quantity for a lot of our players. I’ve seen them quite a bit in the Premiership over the last couple of years and they’re an excellently coached team under Rob Baxter and they’ve added some pretty astute signings over the summer as well.
“Then we’re across to Llanelli (Scarlets) who have already given us a good beating in the first game of the Rabo and they’re flying at the moment and have had some pretty impressive performances so it’s a big three weeks.
“Hopefully we get through these and we can start worrying about Clermont next month then.”