Leo Cullen said his Leinster players were spooked by Saracens as the PRO14 champions paid the price for a nightmare start and crashed out of the Heineken Champions Cup at Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
A thrilling quarter-final in Dublin saw Saracens dominate the first half behind closed doors at the Aviva, racing into a 22-3 half-time lead as Leinster, seven days after completing an unbeaten PRO14 campaign, were overpowered at the scrum and forced into errors by the defending champions’ physicality and line speed. Fly-half Alex Goode, standing in admirably for the suspended Owen Farrell, kicked three penalties and converted his own well-taken try while full-back Elliot Daly landed two long-range penalties for 50 metres and more.
Head coach Cullen’s side mounted a stirring second-half comeback against a side that had beaten them 20-10 in the 2019 final in Newcastle, reducing the deficit to 22-17 through tries from Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour only for a strong Saracens finish, Goode adding to his first-half tally with a late penalty to secure his side’s progress to the last four.
Cullen pointed to a lack of both accuracy and edge in that first half and then added: “I just thought we got a little bit spooked pretty much right from the kick-off, we don’t quite deal with it and Saracens score and we’re struggling to get ourselves into the game.
“We played right into their hands in many ways, to go back to that mentality that they have. They have it and three, six, nine, 12, we handed them those opportunities, especially for Elliot Daly on those long ones, he did well to slot them over from what, 50 metres plus. But they were all things we would have been conscious of leading into the game so we still couldn’t quite deal with it.”
The Leinster boss praised Saracens’ quality despite the absence of Farrell and the exodus of many front-line stars following the English club’s demotion from the Gallagher Premiership due to salary-cap regulation breaches.
“Saracens, you go through their team and they have a hell of a lot of top-level experience and they probably managed the big occasion better. It's a big occasion, I know there's not a crowd here but it's still a big occasion.
"We've had the distraction of (PRO14) semi-final and final over the last couple of weeks and they had a very singular focus. These games come down to small margins and we didn't get enough right in the first half and we dug ourselves into a pretty big hole.
"The guys showed character in the second half but we couldn't do enough to get out of it."
Saracens were magnificent in that opening period, clearly highly motivated to win a game they had been months in the planning for following the massive points deduction in their domestic league that means they will play in the second-tier Championship next season. Europe was effectively their last hurrah and they played like it from the off, the lack of spectators due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions amplifying their vocal responses to every small victory, be it a defensive turnover or one of the four scrum penalties they won at Leinster expense in the first half.
Yet they appeared to run out of steam early in the second half of their first meaningful game in months as Leinster mounted their comeback and Cullen’s side will regret being unable to break through Saracens’ defences during that critical first half.
“They have a power element to their team and their game and we couldn't do enough really, to be honest,” Cullen admitted.
“That's the big thing we need to fix for some of these big games against the top teams in Europe.
"We got to the (2019) final and got beaten by Saracens, they've had some turnover of players and I think people just assumed that with the turnover of players they wouldn't be left with much but you go through their 1 to 15 and they're still a very strong outfit with a hell of a lot of experience, guys who have been involved in a World Cup final at the start of the season. They're guys who have produced on the biggest stage before.
"We just need to be better. We need to figure out how we can be better."
: J Larmour; H Keenan, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (R O’Loughlin, 61- HIA), J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne, 65), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park, 61); C Healy (E Byrne, 57), S Cronin (R Kelleher, 42), A Porter (M Bent, 73); D Toner (R Baird, 42), J Ryan; C Doris, W Connors (J van der Flier, 52), J Conan.
: E Daly; A Lewington, D Taylor, B Barritt - captain, S Maitland; A Goode, R Wigglesworth (A Davies, 69); Mako Vunipola (R Barrington, 69), J George, V Koch; M Itoje, T Swinson (C Hunter-Hill, 64); M Rhodes (C Clark, 73), J Wray, B Vunipola.
T Woolstencroft, A Clarey, Manu Vunipola, D Morris.
Pascal Gauzere (France)