'Gutted' Leo Cullen pinpoints vital period before half-time after Leinster surrender European crown
LEINSTER and Irish teams normally decide championships in the championship moments, before and after half-time.
Today they were indecisive and hence lost their grip on their Champions Cup trophy.
Saracens deserved their clinical triumph but Leinster will regret the loss of control that effectively swung the contest in the crucial minutes before and after the interval oranges, a 10-0 lead frittered away.
Luke McGrath’s failure to boot the ball off the field will see him unfairly ship blame but it was a collective decision to play on, to live – and die – by the sword.
“At the time, we wanted to stick the ball on Billy Vunipola on his 22 and get a two-score lead at half-time,” says the captain, whose decision to opt for a scrum earlier had turned the screw, momentarily on the opposition.
“You don’t want to concede a penalty and then have a 22 lineout. We made a ballsy decision.
“It’s not a good decision to box-kick when you cough up a 10-3 lead. But that period before half-time, and after half-time, when it felt like we had two or three chances to score.
“In the period just before and after half-time when we had two or three chances to score, we were down in their 22 pounding away at their line, they stole the ball a couple of times and then we didn't take advantage of an overlap, we coughed up good ball on the deck.
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“Obviously that 20 minute period was crucial.”
His coach, experiencing for the first time, like so many of his colleagues, a failure at the final hurdle, also reflects ruefully on those key moments when destiny swung away, rather than towards them.
“We’re obviously very gutted. We pulled into the ground before and you see that sea of blue so it was great occasion for everyone out there.
“We started the game really well, created lots of opportunities and built that lead. Everybody is going to talk about that period before half-time, that’s when Saracens score some points and we give up the advantage we had built.
“But there are so many different moments in a game. Even what Johnny says, we created a lot of opportunities and we just need to nail those chances against a very, very good team.
“I mean you see the size of some of their players, they’re a big, big difficult team with lots of quality.
“And as we’ve seen on countless occasions, when a team is trying to chase a game against them, it’s very difficult because they are so aggressive in the middle of the field.
“They’re very comfortable defending and putting the squeeze on teams. They did that really well, strangled us in the last 30 minutes when they had the lead.
“There were some big calls as well which I felt we didn’t get and that’s ultimately how we lost the game. I’m gutted. We’d love to be sitting here with a more positive outcome.
“Full credit to the players the way they applied themselves, and all the work that’s been done behind the scenes to make sure we’re in good shape at this stage of the season.
“We need to dust ourselves off now, we can talk about so many different parts of the game. But we need to move on as quickly as possible because we have a huge game against Munster next week.”
“Yeah, it makes a difference coming into half-time but as Johnny said, hindsight is great,” adds James Ryan.
“When they got that score to go 10-3 we backed ourselves to go again. Unfortunately, they turned the ball over and got the score. Ideally we wanted a bigger lead but then we made mistakes after the break as well.”
Unsurprisingly, Saracens’ coach Mark McCall, now a three-time European winner and the competition’s most successful Irish coach, attests to the pivotal nature of that raucous revival before half-time.
“We had Maro in the bin as well but I thought the players just handled those few minutes really well and to score before half-time was massive for us.
“And then we played really brilliantly in the second-half, we had one really crucial defensive set early in the half, Leinster are one of the best teams in Europe in terms of keeping the ball in your 22 and making your pay.
“George Kruis got a turnover and thereafter we were very good in the next thirty minutes.
“Our players took control at half-time, they were very clear on what we needed to do. We weren’t miles off, we knew we had a little more in us in attack and defence. We just asked for more.
“The ten minutes before half-time was where we wanted to go to and there was a great feeling which brought us to the end.
“It’s so hard to rank anything. This one feels good because we were against a high-class team, 10-0 down, down to 14 men and we had to find a way. And we played good rugby and probably missed a few chances in the second-half.
“It was pivotal in terms of changing momentum,” agreed Brad Barritt, who joins Cullen in being a three-time winning captain.
“Owen told us beneath the posts we had been a tentative and it was almost as if Maro Itoje’s yellow card allowed us to release a bit of tension.”