United Rugby Championship: Leinster bracing for ‘physical battle’ with the Sharks

Dylan Coetzee
RDS Arena, Ballsbridge, Dublin, Ireland. 26th Nov, 2022. United Rugby Championship, Leinster v Glasgow; Leo Cullen Leinster head coach

Leo Cullen is expecting the Sharks to bring a “physical battle” to his Leinster side when they meet on Saturday in the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals.

The Leinster side named for the Sharks clash has been changed a fair amount, including a new half-back pairing in Harry Byrne, who will earn his 50th cap, and skipper Luke McGrath, as well as several forward changes.

Avoiding a flat performance

Cullen is looking to keep the energy within the squad fresh and clear to avoid a flat performance as they had last season when the Bulls threw them out of the competition in the semi-finals by defeating them in Dublin.

The coach expects the Sharks to come with a similar mindset to what the Bulls did on that day and is determined not to let the Durban side get the better of his Leinstermen.

“Some of the fresh players coming into the group have to deliver that freshness and clarity of mind that they’re not as bogged down. They have to play like they have a point to prove,” said Cullen.

“The Bulls came with a point to prove, the Sharks I believe will come with a point to prove, and we need to make sure we’re ready for the physical battle.

“We got a taste of it, we played Sharks, and it was a very physical game at the RDS in Round 4. The lads know that Noel knows us very, very well, how they go about trying to attack us in particular. They’ll make life very difficult for us, just like the Bulls did.

“Definitely, it’s very much on our mind, that Bulls game, and the flatness of our performance that day. That has a lot to do with the Bulls and how they played, and the Sharks will come with a similar mindset.

“So there’s a group that’s representing the province this weekend, and it’s their responsibility to be solely focused on this game because you start looking around at something else; that’s when you come unstuck.

“Sharks don’t have that problem, when they’re knocked out of Europe, and then their intention is trying to qualify for the Champions Cup next season, so their only way of doing that now is by winning this competition.”

Using the whole squad

Cullen insists that if he were not to change up the team, he would be short-siding other members of the squad. He also believes over such a long season, selection is a tricky balancing act for coaches.

“You’re trying to make a call on the group,” said Cullen. “We all probably think that we do the group a disservice if we didn’t make changes and give other guys an opportunity, because the nature of the season is there’s so many moving parts over such a long period of time.

“Some guys have been excellent in terms of getting us to where we are, and it requires a lot of players. Then it’s trying to get the right balance in terms of selection.

“We think we’ve a really exciting group, and plenty of guys with a point to prove. Hopefully, we’ll see that.

“I know there’s disappointed players not to be selected (v Toulouse). It’s an exciting group, and we hope they go well because it’s big.

“We want to be successful on both fronts, which is not easy. Sharks, out of Europe, they’ve a two-week lead into the game. Every team is a slightly different dynamic in how they do things.

“When we were setting off at the start of the season, you’re looking at this period thinking you’d love to be here having these conversations, because there’s no guarantee.

“The group have done incredibly well to get to a home quarter-final in the URC, and we have a final here in a couple of weeks here as well. It’s week to week to week, trying to make some calls on the go.

“Last week, we had a clear idea of what we were planning to do. You’re seeing how players turned up on Sunday and Monday, and you make some calls then.”

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