Exeter one of a few teams Leinster are ‘kind of constantly watching, seeing what they’re doing’

AFTER SIX SUCCESSIVE 80-minute performances since February and having worked his way into the best form of his career, centre Rory O’Loughlin was just over four hours away from his first European start of the season when he, his Leinster side and opponents Toulon had the rug pulled from under all of them.

As soon as his phone buzzed, he knew something was up.

“Just before 1pm, we got a notification in our team app that we had to go on a Zoom call in five minutes or so,” O’Loughlin says.

“After that I just went on to Twitter and typed in ‘Toulon Leinster’ and saw what the news was.”

He and his team-mates found out at roughly the same time as everybody else that there had been a positive Covid-19 case in the Toulon camp, the game was off and, as was later confirmed, Leinster were heading to the quarter-finals without having kicked a ball.

Toulon understandably felt far more aggrieved, of course, but you can imagine the comedown for O’Loughlin and co when, instead of putting the finishing touches on mental preparation for a massive game, they found themselves in the gym by 3pm, “I suppose to do something with all the carb-loading that we did for a game that wasn’t going to be played.

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“That was us for the weekend,” he adds. “We sat back and watched everyone else playing.”

Rory O’Loughlin was Leinster’s player of the match in Zebre three weeks ago. Source: Luca Sighinolfi/INPHO

The cancellation took a spanner to Leinster’s coaches’ plans, too. Gameweeks are generally planned to the decimal place and suddenly there was no game, just another week at the end of which Leinster will meet reigning English and European champions Exeter Chiefs on away soil for a spot in the semis.

And ultimately, they can’t or won’t do much differently in advance of that trip than they would have even if they’d just come through 80 minutes against Toulon.

“I don’t know if you’d call it an advantage — we’ll see after the game if it was or not,” says backs coach Felipe Contepomi of what will be a two-week gap since beating Munster when Leinster arrive at Sandy Park, juxtaposing it with the fact that their hosts reached the Champions Cup last eight on the field.

“To start with, when the game was cancelled, we didn’t know when or who we would be playing the following week, so we couldn’t plan much [differently] either in terms of days and so on.

“The way we plan ourselves — and maybe some teams do it differently, but — we don’t change too much the way we train as we plan [each] week.

As far as preparing for Exeter specifically is concerned, centre O’Loughlin gives a fairly intricate assessment of this Saturday’s opponents and how they like to apply the squeeze on opposition.

When asked if these are traits he has gleamed through team preparation or by watching Exeter while he had most of the weekend off, he says “it’s a bit of both”, adding:

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“And it’s something we’ve seen with Exeter, how effective they are in the opposition 22′, with quick tap-and-gos, how they build their pick-and-gos and just grind teams down.

“We wouldn’t necessarily be looking too far ahead, I suppose, but when we see these clips, say, a month or two ago, it would be mentioned that we might come across these later in the season, so…”

And while there’s no point in looking too far backwards, either, it’s bound to fester among players and coaches on some level that, last time Leinster found themselves in this position, they got it wrong against one of those sides to which O’Loughlin alluded in that same top-tier bracket as Exeter.

Ultimately, there was never going to be a chance for the four-in-a-row Pro14 champions to avenge last season’s European quarter-final defeat to Saracens — and that was laid plain long in advance of that disappointment in Dublin last September. But turning over the European champions on their own patch this weekend would be a good way to banish any existing inhibitive memories, however subconscious.

“The Saracens game definitely feels like a long time ago but it was the last knockout game we played in Europe”, says O’Loughlin, “and it was such a disappointment for the group, given the season we’d had, for it to end with a performance and a defeat like that.

“So, to get to play the champions — double champions, it is probably the closest thing we can get; well, it’s a tougher task than what we played against Saracens. So, we’re under no illusions around the performance we need, like. We didn’t show up in the first 20 minutes of that Saracens game, we gave them a lead that we couldn’t get back, so an 80-minute performance is needed at this level against such quality opposition to win.

There is no definitive timeline on the returns of either Caelan Doris (L) or James Ryan (R), says Contepomi. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ahead of Saturday, there was good news for front row Vakh Abdaladze who is avaialable for the first time since October 2019 but there were no further updates on prospective returns to action for either James Ryan or Caelan Doris, both of whom remain ruled out with concussion.

“No, we don’t [have a definite timeline],” says Contepomi. “They are increasing their training with the team.

“We don’t take it lightly here. We give them the time they [need] and we’ll get the advice of experts and so on and we’ll follow the protocols and the time they need is what they need.

“It’s going…not on a day-to-day basis but it takes time.

“Sometimes it’s baby steps as they come back training. It’s a step-by-step basis like the normal concussion protocols but a bit longer.”

– Originally published at 20:20