Wednesday 18 September 2019

Cullen wary of Munster backlash as Blues triumph late

Leinster 33 Connacht 29

Leinster players celebrate Andrew Porter’s match-winning try. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Leinster players celebrate Andrew Porter’s match-winning try. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

There is something about Irish rugby teams and producing a staggering 41 phases right at the death to snatch a famous victory from the jaws of defeat.

Seven years ago Munster came up with the goods as Ronan O'Gara's late drop goal broke Northampton's hearts in Limerick.

Cian Kelleher dives over to score Connacht’s first try despite the efforts of Hugo Keenan. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cian Kelleher dives over to score Connacht’s first try despite the efforts of Hugo Keenan. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton repeated the trick in even more dramatic circumstances in Paris back in February and on Saturday night it was the turn of Leinster, whose refusal to give in ensured that Connacht's 16-year wait for a win in Dublin goes on.

In making so many changes to his team Leo Cullen knew he was running the risk of certain combinations not being fully up to speed and so it proved, as it took Leinster until the final 10 minutes to click into gear.

By that stage they should have been dead and buried, but the character that this young team showed in fighting back from 17 points down was a mark of the relentless desire to succeed that is filtering from the top down throughout the province.

Leinster scored three converted tries in the final 10 minutes as they ruthlessly punished Connacht's sloppy errors.

The prop acknowledges supporters with Dan Leavy. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The prop acknowledges supporters with Dan Leavy. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

When the Westerners reflect on the closing stages they will have plenty of regrets, as their concentration wobbled in front of a heaving RDS.

Cian Kelleher's missed kick to touch ended in Dan Leavy dotting down, before Kyle Godwin's poor pass was intercepted by Rory O'Loughlin, which created the platform for Leinster to move through the 41 phases.

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"It was pretty stressful for us (coaches) watching in the box, but I'm glad everyone else is happy," a relieved Cullen smiled afterwards.

"It was an amazing crowd there, amazing atmosphere from the very start of the game. It's a pity our players, or all of us, couldn't build on it from a little earlier in the game.

Tom Farrell of Connacht is tackled by Ed Byrne of Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tom Farrell of Connacht is tackled by Ed Byrne of Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"It was a great spectacle for the game, for the league, for the Irish players - a lot of young guys going hard at it against each other. It is a great advert for the game."

The Leinster squad are due to get a half-day today before they are given a couple of days off for Christmas, but the video review session is likely to go on much longer than planned.

For all that Cullen was delighted with the manner of the comeback, it was obvious that he was disappointed with several aspects of his side's play, particularly as he believed Leinster's passiveness in defence made Connacht look like world beaters.

The young players, and the experienced ones too - some of whom had an uncharacteristically off night - will be all the better having come through a tense affair in the end.

Conor O’Brien of Leinster is tackled by Tom McCartney, left, and Gavin Thornbury of Connacht. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Conor O’Brien of Leinster is tackled by Tom McCartney, left, and Gavin Thornbury of Connacht. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

"I think it's just the realisation, there's no margin for error now," Cullen said as he explained the shift in Leinster's mindset going into those last 10 minutes.

"I think there was a little bit of, 'oh it's gonna come, it's gonna come', but then it was like, 'oh it has to come now because if it doesn't the game is up', and we used every last second.

"But I think we were just better, a little bit more clinical. The urgency, some of the crispness of our passing, when it wasn't on we were able to hold it, etc. The ruck, we were able to chase in a little bit more aggressively and clear some of the threats.

"So it's a combination of factors really. Full credit to the players for being able to dig it out, but as I said, there is a 'but' there."

Trailing 19-7 at the break, despite starting the second-half well, Leinster fell further behind after Connacht wrapped up their try-scoring bonus point through Caolin Blade.

It was clear Cullen was not happy. Leinster were being dominated in the contact area, but when the head coach looked to the bench for reinforcements he got the desired effect, as the likes of Sean Cronin, Max Deegan, Ciaran Frawley and Andrew Porter, whose 83rd-minute try won the game, all made their presence felt.

"I thought there were even glimpses in the first-half where we looked okay at times," Cullen maintained.

"We couldn't string enough of it together. We'd have some good build-up play down the far end and we'd turn the ball over on a carry.

"There's a couple of lineouts and we misfire. It is just about being more accurate across the board.

"If we are accurate, we are able to launch our attack and build pressure. In the first six minutes we didn't build any sustained pressure. That is our game. We want to be able to build pressure on both sides of the ball.

"Defensively we need more energy and intent in some of our contacts because we made Connacht look unbelievably good. They are a very good attacking team, but we just got pulled apart too easily."

The big guns are in line for a return in Saturday's clash in Thomond Park, as Munster and Leinster are set to serve up another Christmas cracker.

"We want to try to use guys in the squad at this time of the year, over the course of the three games," Cullen added.

"Some of that is enforced because you need to manage guys, but that is what's best for us anyway as a group.

"I watched Munster last night (Friday), they had a lot of guys that they didn't play at the weekend so I'm assuming that they'll have a lot of guys coming fresh into the game.

"So yeah, it's going to be a great challenge for us. Munster will be smarting coming off the back of a couple of losses, and that's when they are at their more dangerous, as we all know. It will be a great test for us."

Leinster - H Keenan (C Frawley 38); A Byrne, R O'Loughlin, C O'Brien (N Reid 64), D Kearney; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; P Dooley (E Byrne, 49), B Byrne (S Cronin, 49), M Bent (A Porter h-t); M Kearney (R Molony 49), S Fardy; R Ruddock (capt), D Leavy, C Doris (M Deegan 58)

Connacht - D Leader; C Kelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, D Leader; J Carty, C Blade (J Mitchell 13-20); D Buckley (P McCabe 55), T McCartney (S Delahunt 57), F Bealham (D Robertson McCoy 38); U Dillane, G Thornbury (J Cannon, 74); J Butler (capt), C Fainga'a, P Boyle (E Masterson 67).

REF - G Clancy (IRFU)

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