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The 'special day' promise Leo Cullen has made about beaten Leinster

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Only a heart of stone would have felt nothing for Leo Cullen when he tried to give rhyme and reason for his Leinster team’s latest Heineken Champions Cup setback.

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It was a spectacular letdown, the Irish province relinquishing a 17-point lead to lose by three in a classic for the ages that finished with just 27 players on the pitch, just 13 in the Leinster blue following the red carding of Michael Ala’alatoa and the yellow carding of Ronan Kelleher down the finishing straight.

There was the rub: the Leinster replacements bench wasn’t up to the gigantic task of providing the reinforcement necessary to get the foundation laid by their starters over the line when it really counted.

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Too often during the course of recent regular seasons, Cullen’s snazzy team are winning by a canter and the bench gets thrust into a comfortable scenario where even the most inexperienced rookie can look like a world-beater.

Finals rugby, though, is different. Everyone must be on their mettle and in the cauldron of fine margins, any slippage is exposed. So it proved again in Dublin 12 months after the same sort of calamity left Leinster beaten by the same opposition in Marseille.

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Across the 160 minutes versus La Rochelle, Leinster have been in front for 132 minutes (70 on Saturday and 62 last year), yet they have only back-to-back runners-up medals to show for it. The chokers tag will inevitably be given airplay, feeding into this faux narrative that the four-star Leinster are somehow a team to be hated.

However, in the cold light of day, the fact is that Cullen’s nearly men deserve praise that they keep getting up off the canvas, going at it again and coming ever so close to being crowned champions.

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Let’s put their consistency in contesting three Champions Cup finals in the five seasons since their 2018 triumph in perspective, defeats where the margins have been 10 points, three points and now just an agonising one.

On Friday night in Dublin, Toulon wildly celebrated their Challenge Cup final win over Glasgow. That is the secondary level at which the three-in-a-row Champions Cup champions from eight to 10 years ago now compete at. They have fallen away, let their standards slip.

Leinster? They keep making a far better fist of competing for top-table honours and the anguish of recent times can ultimately be the fuel that eventually makes the difference provided they upholster their bench and have finishers who collectively make a winning difference at the top, top level rather than leave their team numerically challenged when called on to produce.

Perspective was something that Cullen alluded to in Saturday evening’s aftermath. A one-point defeat with his team hammering away at the line looking to score the winner was no shame, not when you have the backstory that the director of rugby has, of Leinster historically being terrible contenders who couldn’t dream of ever reaching a final back in the day, never mind win the trophy on four occasions.

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“It’s so tight and the big thing is you have got to keep putting yourself in that situation,” he pleaded. “There is lots of commentary, the fifth star piece. The FIFTH star. I was around in the days when we were trying to get one star.

“As a young player, I remember Mike Ruddock in the old prefab building attached to Wesley and this was 1997. I’m just out of school and Mike Ruddock, Rhys Ruddock’s father, is presenting to us the European Cup final which was Brive against Leicester. ‘Could you ever be part of it?’ that’s the question you are asking yourselves in 1997.

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“That’s why I go back to that 2003 game against Perpignan where we are in a semi-final and you are thinking, ‘This is our time’ and you lose the semi-final – and then you are asking yourself, ‘Will you ever get to this stage again?

“But eventually we do, in 2009. But there were certain players who had been through so much pain, not getting to finals. So we have got young players in the group at the moment and they are experiencing what that pain is like.

“The good news is we won it in 2009, 11, 12, 18. It does seem a long time away, but I do remember the days when it was like, ‘Will we ever do this?’ That is what I mean about the players and the belief and sticking with it.

“It’s so bloody hard. There are teams gathering all around Europe and South African teams now as well and there are assembling squads that are highly motivated, top-end players, huge resources and all the rest. Like, we are there. Like, it’s so close and that is why it is so upsetting.

“It’s so upsetting today but I have a lot of faith in some of the young guys that are coming through and some of the leaders and some of the quality of the people that are there and they will be back, will be back, and you have just got to keep putting yourself in that situation time and time again and someday we will get over the line and it will be a special day.”

Only time can tell, though, whether his hunch will be proven right.

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2 Comments
J
Jérémie 394 days ago

Yep. La Rochelle won more European trophy in 12 months than Leinster in 10 years... (and, 10 years ago, they were in Prod d2)

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