Frustrated Cullen calls for patience
Bath 19-16 Leinster
Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30
Leo Cullen looked as if he had just seen a ghost and he may as well have as he watched Leinster's Champions Cup campaign descend into a full-scale nightmare.
Rarely before has a Leinster forward pack been as decimated as it was at the Rec on Saturday and the fact that 16 of Bath's 19 points came as a direct result of infringements at the scrum, told its own story.
That Johnny Sexton had a penalty attempt to put Leinster in front with eight minutes remaining was as much down to Bath's inaccuracies and failure to make their dominance count as it was to Leinster's quality.
The three-point margin was the same as it was in Leinster's quarter-final win over Bath last season and just like it was at the Aviva Stadium that evening, it was the English side who played all the rugby.
Not that it would have been difficult but their performance was an improvement on last week's no-show against Wasps but the scoreboard was not a fair reflection on Bath's superiority
One wonders what the reaction would have been like had Matt O'Connor overseen a performance in which Leinster's set-piece failed so miserably.
In Cullen's defence, his experienced players are letting him down badly and it was hardly a coincidence that it was four of the younger ones, all of whom have been under his watch for the last three months, who were instrumental in hauling their side back into the game.
Sexton is still desperately struggling for form and what is perhaps most concerning of all is that, currently, he doesn't have his usual swagger.
Cian Healy looks a shadow of the player he has before he underwent neck surgery earlier this year, while Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy were again utterly anonymous.
As it was last weekend at the RDS, Leinster's lack of leadership was a serious concern but Cullen has pleaded with the supporters to be patient.
"I think it's important that we be patient. It's a challenging time," Cullen stressed. "The way Europe has unfolded this year, for Leinster in particular and the fact that we had 20 guys coming back in.
"It's a very short lead-in time to the high-intensity competition so I would ask the fans just to be patient and to come out and back the team on Friday (against Ulster) because the players and the organisation really needs the help that they give the team.
"It's a challenging period integrating that many players. I don't think in the past we would have had as many players at the World Cup, so that's probably proving the biggest challenge."
George Ford had kicked Bath into a 6-3 lead at the break and in truth, Leinster were lucky to still be in touch.
The hosts had butchered a try-scoring opportunity when Matt Banahan threw a forward pass to Stuart Hooper but the warning signs were glaring.
Ford put his side six points in front with another penalty off the back of Leinster's indiscipline at the scrum but worse was to follow.
Two Sexton penalties had briefly pulled Leinster level before Bath were rewarded for their decision to go for the corner rather than take the three points on offer.
They would eventually win a five-metre scrum and Leinster front-row, like it had done all game, crumbled under the pressure and referee Jerome Garces went under the posts and awarded a penalty try that Ford converted.
By that stage, Cullen had introduced two more international props in Jack McGrath and Marty Moore but the struggles continued with Bath coach Mike Ford admitting afterwards that he was surprised by just how much side dominated up front.
Replacements James Tracy, Dominic Ryan and Luke McGrath all had a telling impact in Josh van der Flier's 69th-minute try that somehow kept Leinster in touch in a game that Bath should have long before seen out.
Despite his coaching inexperience, Cullen must now surely be brave enough to give the younger players their chance in the coming weeks.
Sexton's 72nd-minute long-range penalty attempt fell well short before Bath ran the ball from their own 22 and four minutes later won a penalty that Ford brilliantly slotted to seal what was a fully deserved victory.
Alafoti Faosiliva was harshly shown a yellow card late on for a high tackle on Dave Kearney, another who barely featured and Leinster might have worked their way into a match-winning position but their lineout again faltered which left them facing the prospect of having to win their remaining four pool games without being guaranteed a quarter-final place.
"The set-piece for sure is an area that we're going to have to be a hell of a lot better at," Cullen admitted.
"Some of those young guys you mentioned, they're in the system, they know the way we're trying to do things that little bit better, so again, we'll get better. We will get better. So I would ask people just to keep the faith.
"We had a marked increase in our performance from last Sunday, and we were very close to winning that game. There were a lot of really good qualities.
"I'm learning every day. It's a tough challenge, but it's one that I will hopefully bring out the best in the players."
Leinster travel to the Stade Felix Mayol in three weeks to take on Toulon by which stage Cullen's worst nightmare may well come to pass.
Bath - A Watson (T Homer 77); S Rokoduguni, O Devoto (R Priestland 71), K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford, C Cook (N Matawalu 57); N Auterac (N Catt 66), R Webber (R Batty 54), H Thomas (M Lahiff 65); S Hooper (capt), D Attwood; M Garvey, F Louw, L Houston (A Fasosiliva 54).
Leinster - I Nacewa (capt); F McFadden, B Te'o, L Fitzgerald, D Kearney (Z Kirchner 79); J Sexton, I Boss (L McGrath 68); C Healy (J McGrath 51), S Cronin (J Tracy 68), M Ross (M Moore 51); D Toner, H Triggs (D Ryan 53); R Ruddock, J Murphy (J van der Flier 65), J Heaslip.
REF - J Garces (France)