Leo Cullen believes that the gap is narrowing between Leinster and the challengers to their League crown – and the name of the game for the Blues is to fight now to stay on top.
The province stole a march on their – formerly PRO14 – rivals, winning the last four championship titles.
But the possibility of repeating the sort of dominance that saw the club go 25 games unbeaten up to the third of those four final victories – 13 months ago now – seems unlikely now.
Some uncharacteristic mistakes have crept into the Blues’ game at a time when their rivals have grown stronger.
Even last weekend at Rodney Parade, Cullen’s men were pushed to the limit to the last moment and emerged with a 7-6 victory.
They will make it three wins from three in the new URC when they host Zebre – returning to their RDS Arena home at lunchtime today after starting the season at the Aviva Stadium.
Cullen is relieved that crowds are back at games, as he felt playing empty stadiums bred inconsistency of performance.
But he insists Leinster – with Harry Byrne back at out-half after injury and among several players making their season debuts – must work harder than ever to stay on top now.
“A team will always steal a march at various different stages, whether that’s slight tweaks in terms of the laws and how they’re interpreted – certain teams adapt quicker, then others catch up and the gaps close,” reflected Cullen.
“There’s the competition, recruitment…one team falls off and another rises. That’s just sport.
“That’s why it’s so hard to stay at the top for so long, because I’m hearing lots of different teams out there saying, ‘We want trophies, we want trophies… our plan this year is to win trophies’.
“There’s 16 teams all trying to do the same thing ultimately. Do all 16 teams all believe they can win a trophy? Plenty of them do.
“So, you’ve got to try and stay ahead of the competition at all times and the competition is always trying to challenge.
“I definitely think there’s a narrowing for sure, the way the competition is structured in particular means there’s less moving parts.
“You’d play teams at different stages and they might be missing X amount of players – but there’s no clash with the internationals now. That’s the most obvious change, along with slightly less games as well.
“There was a certain war of attrition element to last season, with so many internationals.
“Hence why we used a very big number of players last year. It’s hard to imagine we’ll use that many this season, looking at it now.”
Adam Byrne is back after 22 months out with injury, and Cullen says the big thing for the Kill speedster now is to back himself.
And he was pleased to see Devin Toner, who starts his 17th season today, speak to his team-mates in midweek about his career.
“He has a huge amount of knowledge that he can share,” said the Blues supremo.
“He actually talked this week, which was great. He’s hugely influential.
“You just want him to go well and enjoy the occasion for what it is, do the thing which all the lads love, which is playing in front of a decent crowd at the RDS.
“Hopefully the guys can show it today.”
Leinster: J O’Brien, A Byrne, Osborne, Frawley, Larmour, H Byrne, McGrath; E Byrne, Cronin, Ala’alatoa, Toner, Baird, Leavy, Penny, Ruddock.
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