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Leo Cullen welcomes ‘nervous energy’ as Leinster aim to secure quarter-final spot against Connacht

Head coach Leo Cullen during a Leinster Rugby press conference at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Tadhg Furlong

Rónan Kelleher

Andrew Porter, right, during a Leinster Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Cian Tracey

There is a certain poker element to this evening’s second leg tie between Leinster and Connacht, as both teams look to prove that they didn’t show their full hand at the Sportsground last week.

For two sides that know each other so well, that will be easier said than done as Leo Cullen and Andy Friend look to make small tweaks that both head coaches will hope makes a big difference to their game-plans.

With a place in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final up for grabs, Leinster will have a five-point head-start at the Aviva Stadium, where Connacht will aim to make another fast start and disrupt their hosts’ flow.

That worked to a certain extent in Galway, but as soon as Leinster grew into the game, they picked holes in the Connacht defence, which means they can ill-afford to pass up any opportunities this time. As much as the Westerners will relish playing on a bigger, faster track at Lansdowne Road, a Leinster team that includes 12 regular Ireland starters will be far more familiar with the surroundings.

Connacht’s challenge is to fly out of the traps again, but this time, maintain the early onslaught because if Leinster get on top early doors, they could pull clear.

That’s certainly what the bookies are expecting, as Leinster have been installed as heavy 22-point favourites. That, however, should play into Connacht’s hands, as they look to cause what would be a major upset in the capital.

“I’m always nervous about these things because it means a lot to us,” Cullen said. “If you weren’t nervous, there would be something wrong with you. I was nervous last week, I’m nervous this week, so nothing really changes there. But that’s what makes it special as well. The guys have been focused this week and it’s just about delivering really. Nerves are part of it. They’re a good thing.”

Having Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher back in the starting Leinster front-row is a huge fillip that could prove to be the winning of the game.

The Ireland pair will bring huge physicality in the close exchanges and at the set-piece, so from that extent, Friend needs his pack to be on it from the get-go. Caolin Blade’s promotion to the starting team should help speed up the tempo, but that is all predicated on the forwards being able to provide the platform.

For Cullen and Leinster, it’s all about asserting their dominance up front in order to allow Johnny Sexton pull the strings and throw something different at Connacht’s defence.

“There are always things you’ve worked on that you don’t get the opportunity to play all the plays that you would have had in your locker, so to speak,” Cullen insisted.

“We’ll have a slightly different mindset based on what we’ve seen last week.

“For us, it’s trying to tweak a couple of those pictures for Connacht so it’s different for them as well and we’ll look at threats we’d have seen, I suppose, in the lead-up.

“The dynamic is unusual because we played them a couple of weeks prior in the URC, granted with a very different group of players from our side. And, as we know, there was the red card in that game which had a pretty big bearing on proceedings.

“So yeah, it’s subtle tweaks because you can’t get too clever and change everything. The challenge for us is we had a group that came back in for the Munster week, so off the Connacht game, trying to get a few guys up to speed then, a couple of tweaks, then last week, a few changes again this week. It’s always subtle changes and we’re hoping to improve week on week as well.

“It was a great battle last week, a great contest and we’ll just be trying to get going again. This is the point of the season and the games we all want to be involved in. It would be amazing to get a big crowd here, and hopefully the guys respond and have a performance off the back of it.”

The selection of Jamison Gibson-Park over Luke McGrath this week suggests Leinster are looking to increase their speed of ball, and with Connacht looking for something similar from Blade, the breakdown battle promises to be ferocious.

As much as Connacht are well capable, it will take something special to beat Leinster at the Aviva.

Cullen’s men look like they are hitting form at just the right time, and if they are holding an ace up their sleeve, Leinster should have enough to seal their place in the last eight.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster – H Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong; R Molony, J Murphy; C Doris, J van der Flier, J Conan. Reps: D Sheehan, E Byrne, M Ala’alatoa, D Toner, R Ruddock, L McGrath, R Byrne, C Frawley.

Connacht – T O’Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty, C Blade; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; G Thornbury, L Fifita; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler. Reps: J Murphy, D Buckley, J Aungier, O Dowling, A Papali’i, K Marmion, S Arnold, C Fitzgerald.

Ref – L Pearce (England)

Champions Cup Round of 16 extra-time regulations

⬤ If the aggregate scores are tied at the end of full-time, then 20 minutes (two periods of 10 minutes) of extra-time will be played.

⬤ If the aggregate scores are still level at the end of extra-time, then the winners will be the team who have scored the most tries in both legs (including extra-time).

⬤ If the teams are level on aggregate points and tries at the end of extra-time, then the winners will be determined by a place-kick competition as follows:

▶ Each team will be asked to nominate three goal-kickers

▶ The kickers need not be predetermined, but they must come from the players on the pitch at the final whistle

▶ The end at which the competition takes place will be determined by a toss of a coin. The team to kick first will also be determined by a toss of a coin.

▶ Each kicker will have two kicks from designated positions on the 22 and 10-metre lines and after each team have completed their six kicks a winner will be declared.

▶ If the teams remain deadlocked, the competition will continue on a sudden-death basis.

Leinster v Connacht, Live, BT Sport, 5.30

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