first_imgTHIS TIME LAST year, Leinster were gearing up for two weeks that everyone knew would be decisive; back-to-back Pool 5 clashes with Top 14 powerhouses Clermont.Coming out on the other side, the eastern province had just two points and their hopes of advancing to the quarter-final stages were in tatters. That’s how crucial the December double-headers are in the Heineken Cup and the memory of that failure serves as a motivator for Leinster this week.As they prepare for Saturday’s trip to Franklin’s Gardens to take on Northampton, captain Leo Cullen admits that this two-game block is the key to progress.“It’s where we went out of the tournament basically last year, losing those back-to-back games against Clermont. Even though we got a bonus point away – everyone thought that was great – it didn’t mean a huge amount because of the fact that we got beaten again the following week.It’s a very difficult transition, playing the same team back-to-back. So we need to learn the lessons that we got last year and get a little more out of these two games. It’s a tough challenge away and then a different challenge the week after.”Cullen made his first start of the season in Saturday’s 36-19 win over the Scarlets, having recovered from a long-term Achilles injury. Indeed, it was the 35-year-old’s first game since the RaboDirect Pro12 final against Ulster last season.The Wicklow native admitted with a smile that he was happy to get through the full 70 minutes – the lock was sin binned for repeated infringements – but also underlined that how “frustrating” his extended period on the sidelines had been.Cullen returns to the selection mix for this weekend, although the form of Devin Toner and the relatively greater amount of game time Mike McCarthy has racked up may mean he is not involved. Whoever is in the second row will be up against the spectacularly good Courtney Lawes, a player Cullen greatly rates.“I think he’s probably been the form second row in England over the last couple of years. I thought even in the November internationals he looked very, very strong. He has a very well-rounded game.Lawes played against Leinster in the 2011 final. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.“He’s a very powerful guy for starters. His line-out work is very good and his kick chase and some of his tackling is impressive stuff. So yeah, he’s an imposing figure and with Christian Day, Samu Manoa, whatever combination they go with, they’ve got good quality in there.”Lawes is part of an impressive Northampton team under the stewardship of Jim Mallinder, one which has lost just twice this season [19-13 away to Castres in Europe and 26-24 away to Gloucester domestically].Cullen himself has plenty of experience of playing against the Saints, having spent two seasons in the Premiership with Leicester. There is also the obvious history between Leinster and Saturday’s opponents; Northampton led 22-6 at half-time in the 2011 Heineken Cup final before the Irish province completed one of the great comebacks to win 33-22.Leinster man Cullen feels Mallinder’s team has improved since then and says that recollection will drive them this weekend.[They’re] a really quality team. I think they’re trucking along really well in the Premiership at the moment and they’ve a very,very strong forward pack. I’d know Northampton well from my time in England. It’s a really great ground and it’s a massive challenge for us.“I think they’re a much more rounded team now. They’ve added some quality signings in George North, [Kahn] Fotuali’i, Salesi Ma’afu. So they’ve added a lot of quality to their squad and they’re probably a bit more mature than they were a couple of years ago when we played them in that Heineken Cup final.“I’m sure they are going to be gunning for this game. I’m sure they would like to make amends for that final.”Like rugby? Follow’s dedicated Twitter account @rugby_ie >Leinster ‘optimistic’ O’Driscoll will play against NorthamptonSaints’ Ben Foden out of Leinster double header and may miss England’s Six Nations startlast_img