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Ulster Rugby: Leinster reach a new level if title scent fills their nostrils

By Michael Sadlier

and so as we reach the latter part of the season, it's no real surprise to find that Leinster are sitting atop the PRO12 table and just one victory away from securing themselves a home semi-final which, ironically enough, could yet be against tonight's opponents in what would be a re-run of last season's final when it was Ulster who had 'home' advantage at the RDS.

The hurt of that sun-kissed day in south Dublin is still right up there as one of Ulster's lowest moments but one of the abiding memories of that encounter was not Leinster's delight at bagging the double of success of PRO12 and Amlin Challenge Cup titles to see Joe Schmidt on his way to the Ireland job.

Instead, it came after the immediate celebration when Leo Cullen reminded all those who cared to listen that Leinster had actually ended the season by securing a treble. With things so geared towards high achievement at Leinster, the skipper ensured that he mentioned Leinster A's earlier capture of the usually unrecognised and unloved British and Irish Cup.

It spoke volumes for the way the southern province go about their work and the ruthless, wholly focused mentality on winning that had been planted by the prickly Michael Cheika – the current Waratahs coach who got them over the line for their first Heineken Cup in 2009 – and then so successfully nurtured in Schmidt's tenure with its two Heineken Cups alongside the Amlin and PRO12 success of last season.

As new coach Matt O'Connor (pictured) knows only too well, Leinster are in that place now where securing some form of trophy every season seems to be a basic requirement. And though they disappointingly didn't really fire a shot when being swatted aside at Toulon in their recent Heineken Cup quarter-final, there is still the PRO12 title to have a tilt at while a double – though hardly one to get worked up about – is still on as Leinster A have again reached showdown time in the B&I Cup.

Much has been made of Leinster's admirable structure with their Academy – currently managed for former Ireland international Girvan Dempsey – drawing praise with its ability to seemingly produce an assembly line of talented players.

Quality and mentality have been the twin pillars of Leinster's rise and even though Brian O'Driscoll's impending exit and that of Cullen – though the second row is believed to be lined up as next season's forwards coach – will hurt them, if any side can manage these losses then it is this one.

After all, Leinster are in a good place with the intensity of Ian Madigan's rivalry with Jimmy Gopperth – filling the void after Jonathan Sexton's departure – neatly dovetailing with the rise of Devin Toner, Dave Kearney, Jordi Murphy and Martin Moore to take their place alongside established star players such as Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy, Cian Healy and the injured Sean O'Brien.

None of this has been accidental. Leinster have a superbly efficient structure in place which has kept them in the forefront for honours over the last six seasons.

And what a side they have out tonight. Their front five looks particularly strong with Healy, Sean Cronin and Moore backed up by the impressive Toner and hard-grafting Mike McCarthy. There is dynamism and strength there and in the back row where veteran flanker Shane Jennings is still formidable.

The backline is scarily impressive while if things go a bit awry anywhere, they have a bench positively groaning with quality.

So, beware, O'Driscoll et al are on the scent of silverware and they have that knack of usually hunting down exactly what they want.

Belfast Telegraph


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