We won’t be pushed into panic measures, says Cullen

It would be lazy to dismiss Leinster as just another PRO14 casualty of the Saracens juggernaut.

Like Glasgow Warriors and Munster this season they have been cast aside in the knockout stages of Europe by the English giants who claimed their third Heineken Champions Cup crown in four seasons while denying Leo Cullen’s side a successful title defence and record fifth star on their chests.

That all three are PRO14 semi-finalists this weekend suggests a pattern that may give the perception of inferiority in the Celtic countries. Yet what Leinster proved at St James’ Park on Saturday was that, for the most part, homegrown talent can compete with a bigger-budget, larger-sized machine operating on a very different model to the Union-financed provinces and regions in the PRO14.

No-one will dispute Saracens were worthy winners and rightful heirs to Leinster’s European title. To come from 10-0 down after 32 minutes, tie the game up by half-time and then hold out an early second-half storm to pull away is the stuff of a championship winning side and all power to them.

Leinster, though, will have left Tyneside with regrets their league rivals in previous rounds could not call on.

Like Glasgow in the quarters they took and then lost an early lead. Like Munster in the semi-final they let Saracens back by conceding points before half-time. Unlike their predecessors, Leinster had the opportunities to hit back, just after the interval and change the dynamic of this absorbing contest in front of 51,930 people.

Saracens' Alex Goode and Jackson Wray celebrate at the final whistle. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

That they did not take those chances at the Saracens line, when George Kruis snaffled the ball under the posts and Garry Ringrose did not detect a healthy overlap outside him with the tryline begging, will be a reference point for at least the next campaign and perhaps beyond, just as Saracens’ last-eight loss and the end of their three-in-a-row bid at Leinster last season provided the spur for this year’s return to the top of the European tree.

Cullen was pragmatic in defeat, reflecting on the journey he has taken with his squad from the dark days of 2015-16 when Leinster lost five of their six pool games.

“A few seasons ago, we didn’t have a chance against teams like this.

“That was the sort of general public perception or one that certainly a lot of guys in the media were writing about. And I do think that we have a chance against teams like this now.

“You saw last year, we managed to come through and win (the final against Racing 92). We get to the final hurdle, and we start the game pretty well I thought for the first 30 minutes.

“I think it’s the period of either side of half-time (which is decisive). There’s the 10 minutes either way, where again we have some chances and we probably look the better team, but we don’t unfortunately come out on the scoreboard particularly well in that period.

“So again that’s just us not being quite clinical enough, Saracens, on the other hand, were very clinical.

“That’s probably the period that is the winning and losing of the game.

“In terms of where we’re going forward, we just continue to invest in a lot of young guys. We’re in a different model to what they have, so we just need to get on with that and keep investing in some of the strengths we have. When you pull up today and you see the sea of support we have, every club team in the world would love to have it.

“So that’s a real point of difference for us and it’s something we’re very appreciative to have. When you think of playing a quarter-final, sold out in the Aviva, semi-final on Easter Sunday when there is lots of people away, and there’s still over 40,000 there.

"Some of the crowds that we’ve had during the year, its a real point of difference for us and it’s just something we have to keep building on. For us as a club, as an organisation, from the playing side of things, it’s important for us that we keep trying to display characteristics that people want to support and once we have that level of support it’s important because that allows us to try and invest and keep investing in facilities and the young guys.

"That’s the model, it’s not going to change drastically, we’re not going and suddenly signing five world-class players, it doesn’t work like that, so it is what it is.

“We’re not a million miles away, you could see that in the game today. If we go in front at half-time, does it change the outcome of the game?

“Nobody ever knows so that’s why people always pinpoint a couple of some of these key decisions.

“When we’re 10-0 up, there was that period when we’re seven minutes to half time and we had some chances but we probably maybe play into them that little bit too much.”

For man-of-the-match and Saracens captain Brad Barritt, who equalled Cullen’s feat of lifting the European Cup for a third time at the weekend there was satisfaction that his side had shown the resilience to claw back Leinster’s early lead having seen out an early yellow card for Maro Itoje’s testing of the offside line.

Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall celebrates after beating Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final at St James’ Park, Newcastle. Picture: Billy Stickland

“To be 10-0 down against a side of the quality of Leinster and then lose Maro to the sin bin is difficult.

“The players handled that 10 minutes incredibly well and to score just before half-time was massive. I thought we played really brilliantly in the second half.”

“That’s cup rugby” Cullen concluded, “it’s on the day, you’re never too sure where it’s going to go. Where do we go next? We’re off to the RDS next Saturday.”

LEINSTER:

R Kearney; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton - captain, L McGrath; C Healy (J McGrath, 62), S Cronin (J Tracy, 51), T Furlong (M Bent, 69); D Toner (M Deegan, 74), J Ryan; S Fardy, S O’Brien (R Ruddock, 62), J Conan.

Replacements not used:

H O’Sullivan, R Byrne, R O’Loughlin.

SARACENS:

A Goode; L Williams, A Lozowski, B Barritt - captain, S Maitland; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth, 55); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 29), J George, T Lamositele (V Koch, 29); W Skelton (N Isiekwe, 62), G Kruis; M Itoje, J Wray, B Vunipola (S Burger, 74).

Replacements not used:

J Gray, N Tompkins, D Strettle.

Referee:

Jérome Garcès (France).

More on this topic

Priestland holds his nerve to ensure Champions Cup rugby for Bath

Billy Vunipola ‘the best number eight in the world’ – Jamie George

Cullen wary of Munster mission after Leinster's weekend woes

Sexton: Your decisions are as good as they are in hindsight

More in this Section

Moore to talk to UEFA boss about ticket allocation

Kingdom charge on to another date with Cork

Union Berlin draw with Stuttgart to boost bid for Bundesliga place

Paul Dunne and Michael Hoey in contention after first round in Made In Denmark event


Lifestyle

Weekend Food: Darina Allen introduces you to some of her favourite Sri Lankan dishes

More From The Irish Examiner