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'Guys must understand it's a proper bloody challenge for us now'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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The world was a very different place when Leo Cullen last pulled up a chair and shared his thoughts after a Leinster URC semi-final loss. Never mind that we had Trump in power in the States, May holding fort in the UK and so on. On the field, the Irish province were timid when it most mattered.

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Their 2017 PRO12 playoff defeat to the Scarlets was in keeping with the soft underbelly that had seen them unceremoniously sack Matt O’Connor for a fifth-place 2015 finish and raise questions over the capabilities of the then-rookie boss Cullen following their 2016 final ambush by Connacht.

“We kept coughing the ball up way too cheaply, guys really forcing things and going off-script,” he bemoaned in the aftermath of that 15-27 defeat five years ago to a visiting Welsh outfit that played the entire second half with 14 players after Steff Evans tip tackled Garry Ringrose.

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Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee speaks about beating Leinster for the first time
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Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee speaks about beating Leinster for the first time

The Leinster that Cullen now helms is a powerhouse, their four-in-a-row run of PRO14 league titles decorated by a fourth European star when the double was clenched in 2018. Yet here we were on Friday night, back in the same RDS media room 61 months after the Scarlets ambush with the coach touching on some of the very same issues that let them down all those years ago.

Their execution in the big moments in a big game was again in question and when you tie in this semi-final loss to the Bulls with what unfolded in the European final in Marseille 13 days earlier, it’s been a brutal end-of-season for a Leinster that promised so much in the build-up to these season-defining encounters.

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What gives? So much kudos is given to senior coach Stuart Lancaster for how clinical the Irish province are in their autumn, winter and spring development but his halo has surely slipped with these crushing defeats in recent weeks. You have to question too the genuine depth of this Leinster squad. So much is made of their production line and loads of their excellent young talent are easy on the eye.

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However, when it comes to clinching trophies, especially with the South Africans now muscling in on their territory, there appears to be a gap between numerous first-choice assets and the next man up. That conundrum – and so much more – will for sure give Cullen plenty to chew on now that he has a league final week without a Leinster match to prepare for the first time since 2017.

“It’s unbelievably disappointing, it’s hard to even verbalise it because so much good work has gone in to get us to this point but you need to be able to deliver on the big days and unfortunately we weren’t good enough,” he surmised after the Bulls’ Scarlets-matching 27 points was the jackpot number again for ambushing Leinster in a last-four RDS game.

“We weren’t quite at our best and that is the bit where that self-reflection has to take place from an individual point of view and collectively. Unfortunately, we will be watching the final this year. We would love to be there. It’s bitterly disappointing for our players that have come to the end of their Leinster careers as well, whether they are retiring or moving on to new challenges. We wanted to give everyone the perfect send-off but we are not going to get the perfect send-off this year.

“Everyone’s pretty sick in there. So much work goes into getting the team to knockout games. To fall short, particularly at home in the RDS at this time of the year, is hugely disappointing. We started the game okay, we got ourselves in trouble a few times when we lose the ball at the ruck and that is probably the big thing in terms of how we go about playing the game.

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“That is probably the biggest thing sticking in my mind at the moment because there were moments in that La Rochelle game as well – you give away a turnover at the ruck, there is that huge territory gain for the opposition and Bulls were good and clinical when they got down our end of the field and we were in that mode of chasing the game.

“It was a little different from the La Rochelle game where we lost right at the death and were in the lead for most of the game. Bulls were clinical when they got down our end. They came with a good plan and it’s painful for our guys. For some of the younger guys, these are the harsh lessons you learn sometimes.

“The Bulls are a quality team and they came with a good plan, well-coached and once they had a lead they played that pressure game, didn’t have to do a huge amount but they just put the squeeze on us and we weren’t accurate enough when we were chasing the game.

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“We created plenty of opportunities but when you come to semi-finals against top-end teams you need all your players sort of in that eight, nine, ten out of ten in terms of how they play in the game but unfortunately, some of us were just not good enough.”

Despite the agony, Cullen was magnanimous at the end of his seventh year as Leinster boss to acknowledge how the emergence of a different narrative in the league was needed to boost its credibility. As powerful and brilliant as his team were to watch when swaggering to their four successive titles, the across-the-board competitiveness of the PRO14 had been a damaging issue compared to its rival Top 14 and Premiership leagues.

How, though, there are new kids on the block and while the South Africans were initially collectively flakey in the opening months, the gallop they have since generated has shattered the perception that this tournament would only ever be an Irish-dominated event. “It’s what the competition has needed for sure,” admitted Cullen, cognisant of the bigger picture outside of Leinster.

“You are down in South Africa, it’s the No1 game there, it is what is on the TV all the time and that is the challenge for our guys to really understand. You are up against the world champion country, you see the talent pool that is down there in terms of the big schools, universities and everything will be feeding into the four franchises.

“It’s for our guys to understand that it’s a proper bloody challenge for us now but that is what you want. You want to test yourself against the best teams out there and we need to be on our game, we need to be at our very best when it comes to these playoff games and I don’t think we were at our very best so everyone needs to self-reflect, me included. What can we do better in these weeks?

“We came off a huge win last week, short turnaround into this week, we are not looking for any excuses. The Bulls had a six-day turnaround and had to travel up here in multiple groups, so you have to give them a huge amount of credit for how they have gone about their week and how they executed their plan because they were better on the day.” They sure were.

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