Thursday 17 October 2019

Cullen: 'We're not a million miles off'

Leinster coach believes his side will bounce back and continue to challenge big guns with more rising stars ready to make step up

Billy Vunipola barrels over to score Saracens’ second try despite the efforts of James Lowe (left) and Luke McGrath at St James’ Park. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Billy Vunipola barrels over to score Saracens’ second try despite the efforts of James Lowe (left) and Luke McGrath at St James’ Park. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Like Ireland's loss to England in February, this was a tale of dominant collisions and the concern remains that the Irish players were again blown away. In a World Cup year, it is deeply concerning.

Although they had their chances within the game, Leinster were overwhelmed by the monstrous men in red who got over the gain-line in 48pc of their carries and enjoyed dominance in 38pc of collisions. The Blues either made no progress or were driven backwards 88pc of the time.

Leinster and Saracens produced arguably the highest quality final this tournament has seen, a match of such intensity and physicality it was a wonder the players could walk off the field.

At the end of it all, the English champions had matched the Irish province's greatest team in winning a third title in four years and with a relatively young side and seemingly limitless resources at their disposal, they are set to add a few more stars to their jersey still.

Their Irish coach Mark McCall said they had reached a pitch during the second-half that was beyond anything they had produced to date. That's a compliment to Leinster, but it will be no consolation.

Leo Cullen is the man charged with bridging the gap.

Leinster's Seán O'Brien. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Seán O'Brien. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

In his post-match reflections, the coach reached back into his first season when, in a post-World Cup campaign, they exited at the pool stage.

At that point they were widely written off, but within two years they were back at the top. And, while there were real reasons to fear that the gap between the teams was larger than the 10 points on the scoreboard on Saturday, the coach is adamant that his club will remain a force.

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"A few seasons ago we didn't have a chance against teams like this - that was the sort of general public perception, one that certainly a lot of guys were writing about," the former captain said. "I do think that we have a chance against teams like this now. You saw last year, we managed to come through and win.

"We get to the final and we start the game pretty well. The first 30 minutes, the period either side of half-time, there's the 10 minutes either way, where again we have some chances and we probably look the better team, but we don't unfortunately come out on the scoreboard particularly well in that period.

"So, that's just us not being quite clinical enough, Saracens on the other hand being very clinical. That's probably the period that is the winning and losing of the game. So that's the game.

"In terms of where we are going forward, we just continue to invest in a lot of young guys. We're in a different model to what they have, so we just need to get on with that and keep investing in some of the strengths we have.

"When you pull up today and you see the sea of support we have, every club team in the world would love to have it. So that's a real point of difference for us and it's something we're very appreciative of.


"From the playing side of things it's important for us that we keep trying to display characteristics that people want to support and once we have that level of support it's important because that allows us to try and invest and keep investing in facilities and the young guys.

"That's the model, it's not going to change drastically, we're not going to suddenly be signing five world-class players, it doesn't work like that, so it is what it is.

"We're not a million miles away, you could see that in the game today."

Playing against bigger teams is a challenge they are used to, but in the end Leinster couldn't live with the power in contact.

"We have got ourselves in this situation over the years, we played one or two French teams as well with big packs," Cullen said.

"The way we want to play is to move those guys around, we have a team that wants to play at speed, we still have some powerful ball carriers. We looked dynamic in terms of some of our forward play in particular, in that 20-30 minute period of the first-half.

"You know it is genetics really, you can really only do so much about it."

Next year will be a challenge because so many of Cullen's players will be at the World Cup, but at least he'll be able to pick all three of his overseas signings when Jamison Gibson-Park becomes Irish qualified.

Of course, Leinster have a fourth foreign player on whom there are no restrictions in Joe Tomane, who cannot get into their match-day 23.

In recent years, their recruitment has been spot on, but the Australia international has not provided any bang for Leinster's buck. They need to get him back to his best where he can offer them something different from the bench.

After losing Joey Carbery, Jordi Murphy and Isa Nacewa last season, they will see Seán O'Brien, Jack McGrath, Noel Reid, Mick Kearney and Nick McCarthy head for the exit this summer and will look to the Academy for replacements. As it stands, Cian Kelleher is their only confirmed signing.

The young guns will be a year older and those who played on Saturday know the level they need to get to, while the next wave are primed to make an impact.

On Saturday, Cullen looked to his bench and didn't see any game-changers. Indeed, he didn't even bring on any of his backs.

The erosion of their depth has been a factor all season, but Cullen wasn't about to offer up any sour grapes.


"Look, it's tricky, for us it's… there's certain market forces that make it difficult, for sure. But every team has some sort of thing that they will complain about," he said.

"We don't want to complain too much, just get on with what we've got and make sure we are as good as we possibly can be on any given day.

"We have got ourselves into a situation where we have made a final in Europe, now we playing a home semi-final in the RDS in the PRO14 and we just need to try and turn our attention, which is not going to be easy.

"You know how much it means to Munster, so it should be a good battle."

Winning the PRO14 would secure top seeding for July's pool draw, but Leinster define themselves by their success in Europe.

As of Saturday, they are no longer where they expect to be and they have a job on their hands to get back to the pinnacle.

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