‘Our guys have a chance to do something quite special’ – Cullen

LEINSTER HEAD COACH Leo Cullen says he doesn’t buy into the suggestion Munster’s squad will ‘want it more’ heading into today’s Pro14 final  [KO 5pm, eir Sport/TG4] at the RDS. 

Munster come into the game looking to end a five-game losing streak against Leinster, while also chasing a first trophy since 2011. Leinster, on the other hand, are eyeing a fourth straight Pro14 title and also feel they are well placed to challenge for a first Champions Cup success since 2018.

However, Cullen insists his squad’s history of success hasn’t sated their appetite for silverware, particularly when it comes to playing their biggest rivals.

“I think our guys enjoy competing. Our guys have a chance to do something quite special as well, to lift four Guinness Pro14 titles in a row,” Cullen said.

“We’re at home (at the RDS) and it means a huge amount to the players. Who they represent, what they represent as well. There’s a huge amount of players who have had to work incredibly hard to get into this position, so there’s a great responsibility on the 23 (selected).”

Cullen’s team selection is one of the big talking points ahead of the game, with the Leinster head coach deciding against flooding his team with frontline internationals.

Instead, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe all start on the bench as Cullen keeps faith with some of those who have soldiered through the regular season Pro14 fixtures this year.

The selection of Ross Byrne at out-half ahead of Sexton represents one of the bigger calls Cullen faced this week.

“Ross has played a lot of games of us over the last number of years, a lot of very important games,” Cullen said.

“He’s very controlled and composed, and he’s a competitive character, Ross, like all the great 10s out there.

“For Jamison and Johnny coming back in, because they’ve been fully ingrained in camp mode, for them coming back in at the start of the week, it’s to try and give them a bit of a window of opportunity just to find their feet a little bit more and get back into our system.”

Munster head coach Johann van Graan has taken a different approach and gone full-strength with his starting team, but Cullen says the fundamentals of the contest remain the same regardless of who is playing.

“We know that we’re playing against a hugely motivated team, what’s changed there really? They’re always pretty motivated to beat us.

“For us, it’s to make sure we’re motivated to beat them, because if we lose it won’t be an enjoyable feeling. There’s different various components that will be important.

“Motivation is one thing, but tactics and how we go about translating it into the team, trying to understand the conditions and what it’s going to be like at 5pm – we’ll wait and see.

“Different interpretations by the referee and how he referees the breakdown, as an example, how we can adapt on the day around set-piece and who gets that upper-hand in all those little battles across the park… The players know about all these individual sub-plots. I know the next international window is quite a while away, but these are all trial games as such when you’re going up against your rival for further honours.

Ross Byrne kicks at goal during yesterday’s captain’s run. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s important for us to understand, there’s always so much in terms of motivating factors, so hopefully our guys won’t be short in that department.”

When asked where the game will be won and lost, Cullen pointed to Munster’s strengths around the breakdown, as well as how that area of the game is policed.

“I think the contact area is important,” he continued.

“The aerial challenge will be a big part of the game. You can see it’s a strength of Conor Murray in terms of his box-kicking and in terms of their chase… how we deal with that aerial threat will be important.

“Some of the ruck threats, the likes of Tadhg (Beirne) and CJ Stander; they push the limits – quite often as tackler assists, they don’t show a clear release so how they get refereed for starters and how we deal with that is important because they’re on the edge all the time.

“They’re very, very competitive so we just need to make sure that we’re able to deal with those threats and how we’re able to manage it ourselves and just try to focus on how we can control things ourselves, so big games, final games, discipline, taking opportunities when they come along. They are the big pieces, aren’t they?

“So if someone does something out of character because they’re trying too hard… (it’s about) being in control of our emotions, and we’re nice and clear in our minds in terms of discipline because sometimes these games come down to who gives away the least amount of penalties, or who kicks the penalties when it comes down to it, or who managed to take an opportunity that comes along during the course of the game.

“It’s about nailing those big moments in the game.” 

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Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey field listeners’ questions about Ireland’s victory over England before turning their attention to the club game, and Super Rugby in the Pacific Islands, prospective law trials up north and, of course, this weekend’s Pro14 final between old rivals.