Thursday 22 March 2018

Cullen basks in joy of six as risk earns reward

Leinster 25 Bath 11

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton hands off Bath’s Tom Homer. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster’s Johnny Sexton hands off Bath’s Tom Homer. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Sean Cronin goes over to score his side's first try despite the attentions of Bath's David Denton, Bath. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Bath's Jonathan Joseph is tackled by Leinster's Garry Ringrose, supported by Noel Reid, during their European Rugby Champions Cup clash. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Dave Kearney
David Kelly

David Kelly

A fairly youthful Leinster, then. And a fairly useful one, too on this refreshingly invigorating evidence.

Such chutzpah and indecent grace for six of the brightest young talents of the game to announce themselves on the European stage just as the Irish rugby crisis supposedly reaches its nadir.

Sometimes a coach has to test himself to see if he can dare to stumble rather than not risk anything and just stay standing still.

Nobody in European rugby can match Leo Cullen's accomplishments as a three-time champion, the summit of an irrepressible journey that he and others had navigated from the harsh terrains of the also-rans and the never-has-beens.

It took a decade to create the dynasty that was gilded by Cullen's historical achievement of being a three-time winning captain; its strength, presumably, ought to inure it against a collapse after just ten minutes.

And yet, as Leinster's ruinous league campaign last season led directly into an unprecedented run of European defeats this, it seemed as if the largest populated Irish province's decline might become dangerously precipitous.

Saturday night's evidence may not, of itself, guarantee anything of lingering value but the evidence of sustainability has to seem more tangible when a side featuring a half-dozen first-time European starters destroy the qualification hopes of one of England's leading lights.

If the players seemed fearless - whether Ross Molony's man of the match, action man display, to James Tracy's wondrous flick to Isa Nacewa or gliding Garry Ringrose's golden touches - the coach was not.

This week trumped all those other weeks preparing for European Cup finals and, at a time when his old chum Anthony Foley's churning inner emotions have been examined by all and sundry, Cullen went through the mill too.

"I was really nervous this week," says Cullen, who normally expresses emotions with as much animation as Alan Rickman playing Hans Gruber.


"Not because I don't believe in those guys, but because I want them to do well. I was as nervous as I've ever been, you know, I felt like it was my debut game for Leinster myself.

"I was delighted for those guys. As I said, they're not words, it's hard to describe those guys' actions every day. They produce them. So, yeah, it is heartening, I guess."

It helps when those upon whom you are willing to gamble are worth the risk.

The calculations were clearly sound; there was logic behind what some supporters may have felt was merely a wild stab in the dark. Cullen, though, is not fumbling for a light switch; he has a steady hand on the torch as he and his province pilot their way towards brighter days ahead.

"Every selection is some sort of risk or gamble," says Cullen. "Because they are six guys starting their first game in Europe, of course there's a risk.

"We were more than happy to put those guys out there because we have a huge amount of faith in them."

It also helped that they were housed amongst the familiar surrounds of the RDS and the supportive bosoms of their loyal core support. And that Bath, so close to winning the quarter-final at the Aviva last season, were so accommodating in allowing Leinster take a firm grip on this game.

A combination of factors - World Cup, the Sam Burgess defection, George Ford's dip in form - have undermined Mike Ford and his attempts to play the game for all its aesthetic worth. But even the pragmatic northerner had to concede that his side only weaved magical patterns last season upon the back of their brutish scrum and dominant set-piece; that is now missing.

"Our set-piece wasn't great now was it?" asked and answered the former Ireland assistant. "Lineout? We didn't win many collisions. Credit to Leinster, the enthusiasm the kids showed and the way they ran the football and got off the line was a credit to Leo Cullen.

"They played like they didn't want to lose here in all three Champions Cup games. We were disappointing in our discipline. We weren't patient. And their young players did well."

With both sides willing to play ball for entirely different reasons, it was a surprise that the first-half scoreline was compiled entirely from the kicking tee.

Then again, Leinster were on the verge of creating real try-scoring momentum each time and Cullen lamented the missed opportunities that may have offered his side an even healthier advantage than 12-3.

"Our discipline was poor and Ian Madigan picked us off with his goals," was Ford's matter-of-fact first-half assessment, although there were gilded moments, like Tracy's wonderful hands to his captain Nacewa, one of several promising Leinster bursts.

"We come out revved up and have a good drive but Luke McGrath nicks it off Max Lahiff and they go 60 yards."

His side - and indeed, his son - are pale shadows of their former, vivid selves; Leinster played with a freedom few had witnessed in these old premises for some time.

Bath did score one try on the hour mark through Leroy Houston as the scrum finally got on top, ironically with the experienced front-row replacements in the Leinster scrum - Ford felt a penalty try should also have accrued when Chris Cook was taken out off the ball.

Sean Cronin responded immediately for Leinster, though, to plug the temporary Bath revival; his tub-thumping reaction of delight mixed in with a little nod to the sense in which all this squad, young and old, are driving each other on under the fledgling coach's watchful eye.

Cullen's patience - a virtue not currently perceived as the most valuable of commodities for some reason - may yet earn future reward. This night may not prove to be any guaranteed down payment towards the future good health of Leinster - or Irish rugby.

But, at the very least, we witnessed the most vibrant of pulses.

Leinster - Kirchner (Reid 67); Nacewa (Sexton 74), Ringrose, Te'o, D Kearney; Madigan, L McGrath (Reddan 66); Dooley (J McGrath 46), Tracy (Cronin 46), Furlong (Moore 46), Molony, M McCarthy (Denton 46), Ruddock, Van der Flier, Murphy (O'Brien 59).

Bath - Watson (Homer 64); Rokoduguni, Joseph, K Eastmond, Banahan; Ford, Cook; Lahiff (Auterac 50), Webber (Batty 41), Wilson (Thomas 41), Hooper, Day (Ewels 53), Garvey, Louw (Denton 41), Houston.

Ref - P Gauzere (France)

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