Wednesday 21 August 2019

Leo Cullen knows Toulon challenge could be mission impossible

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen

Brendan Fanning & Jim Glennon

Nothing focuses the mind quite like an early exit from Europe.

In Leinster's case that would mean taking on three-in-a-row champions Toulon in the back-to-back ties next month, knowing that the away leg was no more than a financial expense, and the home one an exercise in trying to turn a wake into a party. Having come up short at the Rec yesterday that is now Leinster's lot.

If you are surprised at this outcome then you've been living in a parallel universe. The scale of the climb was set in the summer when they were drawn with Wasps, Bath and Toulon. It was perfectly reasonable however to hope that the issue would remain live into December.

Then Leinster stalled against Wasps when they were supposed to get off to a winning start. A bit like Ireland's World Cup demise against Argentina, it's nonsensical to ignore a sudden and significant hit on the injury front as being inconsequential. In Leinster's case the withdrawal of Isa Nacewa, Ben Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald transformed the look of their back line last Sunday. And yes, filtering back in to the mix the World Cup contingent is a challenge.

Neither of those however explained how Leinster fell off the edge of the earth having started fairly well that day. The degree to which they lost the plot made you wonder how players who are at this job on a full-time basis can look like they're fetching up to training only on a Tuesday and Thursday night.

So that left them under acute pressure going to Bath yesterday. History was on their side, having never lost in the Rec, but not much else looked good. All three concussion victims from the RDS last weekend were ruled out, and Bath had the luxury of a weekend off while their opponents were turning around in a six-day period.

Moreover there was a burning desire in the Bath camp to get it right, having played all the rugby in the quarter-final in the Aviva last season only to be turfed out. Not this time.

Afterwards Leo Cullen was talking about the "huge challenge" now of trying to play their way back into the tournament, via home and away games against the best-resourced team in Europe. His crumb of comfort is that Bath managed it last season. It helped that they had Montpellier next up having lost their first two games, and they put an aggregate of 62 points on the French side who had limited interest in either game. Not quite Toulon then.

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So these are hard times for Leo Cullen, and his assistant, Girvan Dempsey. It's an unforgiving environment, and often an unthinking one when people come to assess what's going wrong. Leinster didn't play at all badly yesterday, but against a powerful scrummaging unit they lurched from struggling to being comfortable to struggling again. The comfy bit was an odd and short-lived period when it seemed referee Jerome Garces was undergoing a transition of his own. There will be more trouble in that area. Having been hit with a penalty try just after the hour mark to go 16-9 down, they played effective and direct rugby to get back on level terms. As it happened, we saw two sides of Leinster's future in that final quarter. Luke McGrath, a fine player, did very well when he came on, as did Josh van der Flier who carried for the try which Johnny Sexton goaled to square the game.

On the last play however, after they had fallen behind by three to a nerveless kick from George Ford, you wondered what was going through the mind of replacement hooker James Tracy as he addressed a lineout which Leinster had to win to have a chance of levelling, never mind winning, the game. What followed was a bit of messing from Bath who bullied Leinster into throwing to a narrowed gap. Devin Toner should have stepped up and forced referee Garces to reset the channel for Tracy. It wouldn't have happened like that when Leinster were surfing the waves in Europe. Now they wouldn't get a wave on the beach.

Cool heads required for long December of damage limitation

Having written last week of the 'Leinster way' and the pleasure derived by many, across all the provinces, in watching their teams of predominantly local players coached by largely local staffs competing with the best in the northern hemisphere, I expressed the view that these factors facilitate supporters in connecting with the team and buying in to their efforts - all of which, of course, served only to deepen the disappointment with Leinster's subsequent performance.

Put in context, Wasps at the RDS had been seen as the least difficult of the six games and with Bath away yesterday and Toulon 'back-to-back' in December, a smiling Leinster supporter was indeed a rare bird this past week.

Although no team were disrupted by the World Cup more than Leinster, Bath did have their fair share of players away with England, as well as the likes of Fiji and Wales. Having won two and lost two in their opening four Premiership games, it was difficult to know what to expect from them going into yesterday's game.

Having successfully visited the Rec on a couple of occasions, Leinster had positive memories of the ground; Bath's new incarnation under owner Bruce Craig is, however, a different challenge entirely.

Leinster stood up to the plate yesterday and the improvement in their performance was obvious; the heightened intensity levels from the likes of Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, both relatively passive last week, was equally evident. The return of Ben Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald provided a midfield physical presence and behind them skipper Isa Nacewa was another welcome returnee.

The senior players called for a reaction to last week, and they got it. The question, however, was always going to be whether it would be enough to win against a quality Bath team. In addition to Nacewa, Te'o and Fitzgerald, the introduction of Hayden Triggs and particularly Rhys Ruddock added badly-needed physicality up front.

Serious difficulties continued in the front five however with Cian Healy still struggling since his return from injury, and Mike Ross having another of his less effective days - Leinster's scrum is in need of urgent remedial attention.

Whether the Fitzgerald-Te'o combination is a runner in the long-term is debatable, but they combined well at times yesterday outside a more recognisable Sexton and looked worthy of perseverance.

Their opponents, however, looked razor sharp and keen to exploit even the faintest of opportunities with Mike Ford attacking the line and bringing his three-quarters into play excellently and Eastmond, Watson, Banahan and Rokoduguni always menacing when in possession; indeed a familiar face in Niko Matawalu in the second-half only served to increase the threat posed by the Bath attack.

Francois Louw, on Bath's openside, was probably the game's dominant forward, and his impact both in attack and defence was deeply impressive. The unheralded Leroy Houston at eight did a job similar to the equally unheralded Nathan Hughes of Wasps last week, and the physicality of the hosts was striking - in contrast to Leinster, at least until the introduction late on of the replacements whose impact almost dug out a remarkable result.

So Leinster have a mountain to climb after only two games. Difficult times lie immediately ahead, with no respite in terms of the quality of opposition over the next couple of months. It's a time for cool heads all round - players, management and supporters; the controversialists will be coming over the hill, no doubt conveniently forgetting their equally ridiculous clamour for the early dismissal of both Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt in not dissimilar circumstances.

The supporters' connection with the group, so enjoyable in the good days, will be more important than ever - it's payback time.

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