Leinster may have been given a scare by Zebre Parma in the opening round, but wins over Benetton and this past weekend in the Irish derby against rivals Ulster have underlined the determination of coach Leo Cullen’s side to bet back to their habit of winning trophies after coming short in both the Vodacom URC and Heineken Champions Cup in 2021/2022.
Cullen’s team were all over Ulster in Belfast and placed a marker for other sides. It will take some performance to stop the Irish side from again marching on to the Vodacom URC title this season after their long spell at the top was broken by the Vodacom Bulls’ shock win in last year’s semi-final at the RDS Arena.
But while it was an important win for his team, Cullen wasn’t buying into any hype after the game. He said his side still could improve quite significantly as they move forward in the coming rounds of the Vodacom URC. That can be seen as an ominous warning for future opponents, most particularly the Cell C Sharks, who visit Dublin to face Leinster this coming weekend.
“We’re excited for the season but we’ve got to put the building blocks in place,” said Cullen after the Belfast win.
“That’s coming away on a really ugly night, dogging out a win and getting four points. That’s not a bad outcome. There are lots of parts of our performance that could be a hell of a lot better but there were a lot of guys coming in for their first game of the season, and they were struggling.
"It’s not even the pace of the game, just the type of game it is, a very wet night, very difficult to catch some of the many high balls that were raining in on the back threes.”
Cullen added that the game could have been “put to bed” early in the second half, when his team led by 17 points.
“There was lots of excellent stuff in the first half, set-piece, how we managed the game. We were really smart in terms of the way we attacked the game," he said.
“At the start of the second half, we’re 20-3 up and have a lineout five metres out – crooked throw, scrum, give away a penalty, Ulster relieve the pressure. They got the roll on a couple of times with their maul, we know it’s a strong part of their game.
“How we deal with high balls, we just gave Ulster access points back into the game. Then the crowd are into it, theres a bit more pressure on the referee, more decisions are going their way, then you’re under the pump. But to be fair to the lads they scrambled well.”
Ulster coach Dan McFarland lamented the loss at home and credited Leinster for their impressive performance.
“You never want to lose an inter-pro game and especially not at home," McFarland said.
"They are a good team but I feel we are better than the performance we put in tonight. They came up and showed an intensity in every moment in the game. We lost a few of those battles - collisions-wise, set-piece-wise, skills-wise - so there are a couple of things that we will probably have to address.
"There were a couple of times in the first half where I felt we could have controlled areas of the pitch a bit better. There were also a couple of times where we chased really hard and put some real pressure on them. They didn't make many mistakes in the first half and we did."
Edinburgh will come home brimming with confidence despite losing both their games in South Africa and are set to face the high flying Emirates Lions, the latter having already won two games on their three-game tour.
South African-born Scottish prop Pierre Schoeman believes the side left South Africa with a lot of confidence and are ready for the Emirates Lions.
“Last week, the Bulls match was a real big positive and we picked up some points on the road, then this week we were not far off having a good lead at the end of the first half, which would have given us the mentality of ‘let’s get another try or two’ going into the second half," said Schoeman.
“It is always a challenge against my fellow South Africans, they are a tough bunch, but it is nice as a pack from Scotland and Edinburgh, to stand for our country and our city and compete against some of the world’s best players and teams.
“So, we are leaving South Africa with a lot of confidence. We’re not satisfied. You never are when you lose. But our set-piece was really good, and maybe there is room for improvement with our speed to set in attack.”
Schoeman said the Emirates Lions were going to be a tough battle, but Edinburgh were ready for what was coming: “The Lions had a good win over Cardiff at the weekend, and what is clear from that game is that they fought right to the end – kept their foot on the pedal right up to the last minute – so we know it is going to be a battle.”
The rest of the weekend’s fixtures see an uncharacteristically low-log battle between Connacht, who haven’t won a game yet, and Munster, who stuttered to their first win over Zebre Parma and have vowed to back their youngsters despite only one win in three games.
Scarlets will host Cardiff in another Welsh derby while Ulster hope to bounce back against Ospreys and Benetton host the Dragons in Sunday action.
Vodacom Bulls 28 Connacht 14
Ulster 13 Leinster 20
Cardiff 18 Emirates Lions 31
DHL Stormers 34 Edinburgh 18
Ospreys 32 Glasgow Warriors 17
Munster 21 Zebre Parma 5
Benetton 34 Scarlets 23
Dragons 19 Cell C Sharks 20
Friday, 7 October:
20h35: Edinburgh v Emirates Lions
20h35: Connacht v Munster
Saturday, 8 October:
16h00: Zebre Parma v DHL Stormers
18h05: Leinster v Cell C Sharks
18h15: Scarlets v Cardiff
20h35: Ulster v Ospreys
20h35: Glasgow Warriors v Vodacom Bulls
Sunday, 9 October:
15h45: Benetton v Dragons