Cullen 'gutted' at loss against Saracens

Leinster's Johnny Sexton during the post match press conference. Credit ©INPHO/Gary Carr

Johnny Sexton left St James’ Park regretting missed opportunities as Saracens powered to their third Heineken Champions Cup title in four seasons and denied Leinster a record fifth European crown.

Saracens came from 10-0 down approaching half-time to eke out a 20-10 victory in front of a 51,930 crowd at the home of Newcastle United on a sunny evening on Tyneside in an excellent performance built on intense physicality, suffocating defence and a try in each half, first from Sean Maitland and then Billy Vunipola.

Yet Leinster were not without their own chances having taken the lead through a penalty from captain Sexton in the third minute and converted try from Tadhg Furlong in the 32nd.

The concession of Maitland’s try just before half-time, when Leinster had the opportunity to kick the ball dead and bring the opening period to an end, only to concede a penalty on which Saracens fully capitalised, and early dominance in the second half which the defending champions failed to convert into points left Sexton rueing the chances that went begging in Newcastle.

“Look, they won those big moments,” the Leinster skipper said.

Maybe I’ll have a different story for you when I look back on it on Monday... (but) that moment just before half-time and that moment just after half-time when we didn’t capitalise on great try-scoring opportunities. They’re the small margins and they took their opportunities.

Of the moment just before half-time when scrum-half Luke McGrath box-kicked from the back of a ruck rather than kick the ball dead with a 10-3 lead and the clock past 40 minutes, Sexton added: “I think at the time, (the idea) was to stick the ball on Billy Vunipola, he was standing on the 22, try to win the ball over his head and try to get a two-score lead before half-time.

“Obviously when you kick the ball that close to their 22, obviously you don't want to concede the penalty and don't want to be defending a 22 lineout. Your decisions are as good as they are in hindsight.

“We made a ballsy decision when we were 3-0 up to go for a scrum and not take the three points, it was a great decision because we scored off it. It's not a good decision to box-kick it when you cough up a 10-3 lead.

“In the period just before and after half-time when we had two or three chances to score, we were down in their 22 pounding away at their line, they stole the ball a couple of times and then we didn't take advantage of an overlap, we coughed up good ball on the deck. And obviously, that 20-minute period was crucial.”

Saracens celebrate in the dressing room after the game. Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Leinster boss Leo Cullen spoke of his team’s disappointment but praised Saracens for taking their chances and using their physicality to grind the Irishmen into submission.

“We’re obviously very gutted,” head coach Cullen said.

“We started the game really well, created lots of opportunities and built that lead. Everybody is going to talk about that period before half-time, that’s when Saracens scored some points and we give up the advantage we had built.

“But there are so many different moments in a game. Even what Johnny says, we created a lot of opportunities and we just need to nail those chances against a very, very good team.

“I mean you see the size of some of their players, they’re a big, big difficult team with lots of quality. And as we’ve seen on countless occasions, when a team is trying to chase a game against them, it’s very difficult because they are so aggressive in the middle of the field.

“They’re very comfortable defending and putting the squeeze on teams. They did that really well, strangled us in the last 30 minutes when they had the lead.

There were some big calls as well which I felt we didn’t get and that’s ultimately how we lost the game. I’m gutted. We’d love to be sitting here with a more positive outcome.

Cullen also spoke of the need for Leinster to quickly regroup on their return to Dublin and begin preparations for the defence of the Guinness PRO14 title, starting next Saturday against Munster at the RDS in Dublin.

“Full credit to the players the way they applied themselves, and all the work that’s been done behind the scenes to make sure we’re in good shape at this stage of the season. We need to dust ourselves off now, we can talk about so many different parts of the game. But we need to move on as quickly as possible because we have a huge game against Munster next week.”

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