Friday 20 September 2019

History-making coach deflects praise after love affair blossoms once more

Isa Nacewa lands a penalty after taking over the kicking duties from Johnny Sexton in Bilbao. Photo: Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa lands a penalty after taking over the kicking duties from Johnny Sexton in Bilbao. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Leo Cullen hailed his Leinster side's resolve and composure after becoming the first man in European competition history to both play for and coach a winning side.

"We stayed patient but for a long time we just couldn't get our noses in front," said Cullen. "All credit to the players, they were composed to the very end. They kept pushing and pushing and pushing. It was tough to watch those last 20 minutes. It was torturous at times.

"It's relief really. Obsessed is the word we have about this tournament and to get to this stage again, it's just very lucky that the club have been very supportive of me.

"A lot of work goes into, for the most part, producing home-grown players, and you can see the young guys there who did so well for us today.

"We have clubs and schools we rely heavily on to produce players and then we recruit a couple of guys to add to it all from the outside.

"We're just pleased to see that the work goes on. We have a love affair with this tournament. But it's mainly about credit to the players because they are the ones who put out the brave deeds on the day.

"And especially guys like Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton - their influence on the team is so crucial. They are two very dedicated leaders so I'm very pleased for them."

Sexton asked Nacewa to complete the kicking duties due to the out-half's groin twinge; the second of the departing Kiwi's brace finally gave Leinster the lead for the first time on a fraught, tense evening in Bilbao.

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"It was great for Isa to finish off with the last couple of penalties," said Sexton. "I slipped earlier and tweaked my groin a little bit so there was no point in risking it and costing the team. When you have a quality kicker like Isa, it was a no-brainer."

Nacewa will soon enter his second retirement but even in his moment of triumph, the captain ensured that another departing player, Ulster-bound back-row Jordi Murphy, stepped forward to lift the trophy.

"Jordi has been phenomenal for us, he is such a dedicated player who plays with his heart on his sleeve. It's fitting for him to have an outstanding campaign and it was good that he lifted the trophy," said Nacewa.

"He's been at the centre of things during the whole campaign and it was a good way to sign off in Europe for Leinster. Maybe we'll see him back one day.

"It's a special day for the province and the club. A lot of hard work is done behind the scenes and a lot of those people don't get the credit - admin staff and players who weren't involved. So much goes unnoticed that leads us to here. There is a solid core of young players, minus me, that will be able to bring this forward."

Racing's former Ireland second-row Donnacha Ryan could barely lift his left arm after the torrid 80 minutes but he still managed to humbly hold his hands up and declare that the newly-crowed champions justified their crown. A tryless encounter was perhaps always going to sway the way of the more disciplined outfit.

"It's very disappointing," said Ryan. "We thought we had a bit of control with 10 minutes to go. Just discipline let us down, a lack of communication in defence - we needed to work harder to get back in defence.

"But it's a credit to Leinster, they kept coming. Their ball retention was very, very good. We just needed to be a bit more technical in those areas, but very disappointing.

"They have a high ball-retention rate, I think it's in the high 90s so we had to attack their breakdown and we probably did that for the most part of the game. But we have to keep doing it for 80 minutes and we didn't do it.

"It was very disappointing. But credit to Leinster, they haven't lost a game all season. They're deserved champions."

Leinster formed the bedrock of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning side, and they will now target a European and Pro14 double, with Munster's visit to the RDS next Saturday already in their sights.

"We're very lucky we have a group of coaches we work with at international and provincial level who drive us on," said Sexton.

"And when all these young guys come through they need to be coached really well and learn pretty quickly. We learned some hard truths last year but now we have guys like Dan Leavy and James Ryan pushing through.

"A lot of things have fallen into place. We missed Rob Henshaw and Garry Ringrose for a long time but they came back, we seemed to get guys fit at the right time.

"If you'd told me at the start of the season we would win a Grand Slam and win a Champions Cup, I'd have bitten your hand off.

"So we're really happy. We have got a big game next week, hopefully get to another final and then there is a tour to Australia. We've one last push to make it that dream season."

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