Thursday 19 September 2019

Leo Cullen slams 'unacceptable' performance as Leinster stung

Record home defeat leaves three-time champions on the precipice

Jonathan Sexton, Leinster, is tackled by Ben Jacobs, left, and Ashley Johnson, Wasps
Jonathan Sexton, Leinster, is tackled by Ben Jacobs, left, and Ashley Johnson, Wasps
Dave Kearney, Leinster, leaves the pitch during the second half
Tadhg Furlong, Leinster, is tackled by Matt Mullan, left, and Joe Launchbury, Wasps
Sam Jones of Wasps gets to the line-out ball ahead of Leinster’s Jordi Murphy during yesterday’s Champions Cup clash at the RDS
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leo Cullen looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders as he trudged towards the RDS exit yesterday afternoon.

He knew this would be a tough start to a difficult pool, but could never have imagined that he would have overseen such a dismal performance on his first outing as Leinster coach in Europe.

The former second-row lifted the Heineken Cup more times than any other captain in history, but if he wants to lead the three-time champions back to the top of the tree then he will need much more from his players.

The coach was badly let down at the RDS by a team packed with international talent who were bullied on their own patch and lacked the leadership and wherewithal to get themselves out of trouble.

Jamie Heaslip, their captain after Isa Nacewa's late withdrawal with a knee injury, was presented to the media in the aftermath to explain the defeat but instead lapsed into the behaviour of a spoilt child deprived of a promised trip to McDonald's.

Short, surly answers and snarky put-downs might have felt good to the would-be Ireland captain as he headed back to the dressing-room, but having just led his province to a record European defeat he might have chosen a more humble approach. Asked if he was angry with the performance, he said he was simply "disappointed".

He should have been furious. It is hard to remember a worse display from a Leinster team in Europe as they gave up the ghost early and were lucky Wasps didn't leave Dublin with a bonus point.

"Pretty awful, very inaccurate," was Cullen's assessment. "It's one of the more bizarre games I've seen. Wasps didn't do a lot for their scores. It's one of the worst days I've had being involved with Leinster for a long, long time.

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"We've got some really good leaders, guys who have done it at international level, so I don't think that is an excuse for us, no. We looked disjointed and I talked before the game about the fear of guys coming back into the set-up.

"The guys would feel a sense of letting people down. They take the responsibility of playing for this team very seriously because a lot of them have friends and family out there supporting them.

"There's a lot of dejection in the dressing-room, but it's important they dust themselves down now because we have a short turn-around to the Bath game.

"Across the board, that level of performance is unacceptable."

The strange thing was that Leinster were decent in the first-half until Dave Kearney hesitated for a moment, slipped and watched in horror as Christian Wade pounced to score the game's first try.

After that, they went into panic mode. Eoin Reddan's passing levels dropped, Johnny Sexton couldn't exert any influence and they never created anything close to a clear-cut opportunity.

Yet they dominated possession and territory, but lacked the precision or guile to break an excellent Wasps defence down. After Sexton's 17th-minute penalty they didn't score and messed up several visits to the 22.

Having gotten two scores ahead, the English side should have scored on the cusp of half-time but for the brilliant Charles Piutau's pass being too firm for Christian Wade to handle, but they made up for it after the interval when their other All Black, Frank Halai, left Sean Cronin for dead and set Joe Simpson up to score.

Down 17 points with 32 minutes remaining, the RDS crowd waited for a Leinster response that never came.

There were moments from individuals like Ian Madigan and Garry Ringrose, but too many of their internationals were off their game.

Heaslip was anonymous, Sexton uncharacteristically poor; the two most valuable players in Irish rugby couldn't lift those around them. The scrum crumbled, the defensive line was porous with Devin Toner and Mike Ross again targeted by big carriers who made hard yards. But the real problem for Cullen's side was their inability to get over the gainline in the absence of Ben Te'o, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney. They lost Richardt Strauss, Sean O'Brien and Mike McCarthy to head injuries which also cost them carrying power and they rarely troubled the Wasps defence.

The English side should have won here last season and drew the corresponding fixture in Coventry to reach the quarter-finals. Since then they have recruited two All Blacks and a Wallaby great and it showed.

Piutau, who will move to Ulster next summer, was the outstanding performer on the pitch and he scored his side's third and final try with the last play of the game. It was a fortuitous effort, coming after Salosi Tagicakibau's attempt came up short, but it was deserved.

With Toulon's game against Bath postponed until an as-yet unknown date, Wasps are now in control of Pool Five ahead of the champions' visit to Coventry.

"It can only add to belief and confidence but Leinster were in a difficult position, let's make no bones about it," their satisfied coach Dai Young said.

"Once you go two scores down you've got to look for that miracle ball, for that 50-50 off-load. The score could have been closer but they went out to try to win the game, they didn't sit back, we just frustrated them with our defence and it was a case that they were either going to close the gap or we were either going to kick on."

Leinster have six days to turn it around against Bath at the Rec on Saturday or face the prospect of back-to-back fixtures against the mighty Toulon next month having already effectively exited the tournament.

Wasps qualified from their pool last year after bouncing back from two defeats, but Castres had lost interest. There are no weak teams in this pool and Leinster may need to win away to Bath and Toulon to qualify for the quarter-finals.

Cullen clearly has a role to play this week, but surely it is his players who must take control of the situation and give a response.

If they don't, it could be a long season.

Leinster: I Madigan; Z Kirchner, F McFadden, N Reid, D Kearney (G Ringrose 71); J Sexton, E Reddan (L McGrath 49); J McGrath (C Healy 49), R Strauss (S Cronin 26), M Ross (T Furlong 49); D Toner, M McCarthy (H Triggs 41); J Murphy, S O'Brien (J Conan 40), J Heaslip.

Wasps: C Piutau; C Wade (S Tagicakibau 71), E Daly, B Jacobs, F Halai; R Jackson (A Lozowski 73), J Simpson (D Robson 56); M Mullan (capt) (S McIntyre 64), C Festuccia (A Johnson 56), J Cooper-Wooley (P Swainston 64); J Launchbury, B Davies (J Gaskell 67); S Jones, G Smith, N Hughes (G Thompson 73).

Referee: M Raynal (France).

Leinster 6


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