Leinster look to ‘reassess’, but road ahead is unclear

Toulon defeat leaves Leinster facing tough questions

This was Leo Cullen's mulligan. Everyone knows Leinster are in a period of rebuilding without the correct tools to actually do so in this new European environment.

What’s a successful season for them now? How can the 37 year old’s first shot at being a head coach end in a positive light?

“Top two and a home semi-final in the Pro 12 but that’s a long, long way away,” went Cullen after Toulon’s resounding 20-16 victory at the Aviva stadium.

Leinster will now “Reassess”. That was the word of the day. Repeated over and over again. Go back into their UCD bubble to plan a new way to halt this unprecedented losing streak. Leinster have never fallen four times out of four in European competition. Cullen stared down that unwanted fact. Cullen talked about the need to look at what can be done.


But Cullen and his captain Isa Nacewa refused to fully acknowledge the elephant in the room after this crushing defeat to three-time European champions Toulon.

The scoreline doesn’t look so crushing but Leinster, as Cullen said himself, were “suffocated” by a team that operates in an other worldly financial arena.

Cullen said as much. So we asked about addressing that, about recruiting men like Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn who partnered Cullen in the Leinster secondrow when European silverware was captured.

“That’s well above my level,” said Cullen of the obvious need to prioritise the provinces despite the national team being the main bread earner for the IRFU.

“I’ll focus on what I can control.”

Matt O'Connor highlighted the straight jacket he must work in last season only to be publicly dressed down by Joe Schmidt.

“That’s well above my pay packet,” said Nacewa to the same question. “I don’t think about that stuff. I think about the 15, the 23 we can put out each week.”

But is that not thinking about the very thing he claims not to be thinking about? Wait until you see the teams for Munster versus Leinster in Limerick on December 27th. There's an Ireland camp coming so that will be the priority. Leinster's potentially toughest ever season has some way to go yet.

David Nucifora, the High Performance director (the man employed to modernise Irish rugby), is rumoured to be finally coming before the media next week, Christmas week of all weeks when minds are anywhere but rugby, to discuss the movement of players either abroad or to another province (what say he on Ian Madigan or Simon Zebo or this Rodney Ah You shift to Ulster or Robbie Henshaw to Leinster, what say he?) and the internal World Cup review. And a myriad of other issues that the public want answers on. Because the rugby landscape is vastly changing and the concern is an old one: can Irish rugby adapt quick enough? Can the big decisions be made to keep pace with the English and French juggernauts?

When Cullen says reassess does that not primarily lead to the need to recruit new Hines’ or Thorn’s, hardened professionals of a size not normally created on this small island?

“We have never been out of the competition this early. When that happens you soul search and that’s what we will do. A strong look, like we normally would. This season we have learned some really harsh lessons. We don’t make life easy for ourselves because of the first two results as well.

“There was a lot of good things in the first half. But just the power, how we deal with that going forward, we need to have a good reassess of where we are going.”

The question won't change. Reassess - does that not mean recruitment (in fairness, Kane Douglas was supposed to be that man and certainly looked the part at the World Cup)?

"When we were winning Heineken Cups there was no Toulon," Cullen noted.

He even suggested that Leinster “maybe caught them on the hop” in last year’s semi-final that ended in an extra-time defeat after Bryan Habana’s intercept try. The same great Springbok winger who didn’t get a touch of the ball here as everything was centred around the Toulon pack squeezing the life out of Jamie Heaslip’s smaller warriors.

No Sean O'Brien and a currently unrecognisable Cian Healy makes Leinster a significantly lesser proposition.

"Power? What is this power?" Bernard Laporte wondered when asked whether Toulon's philosophy is the opposite of Conor McGregor's decree that precision beats power every time.

This time power prevailed. Scrumhalf Eric Escande couldn't kick a shoe so everything eventually became about their scrum and driving maul. Especially when Mike Ross suffered a "significant hamstring strain/tear." Lots of them going around the Irish pack since the World Cup. Ross possibly joins Paul O'Connell and Iain Henderson on that long road to rehabilitation.

“It is intact at least,” said Cullen. “Johnny (Sexton) had a bit of tightness in his quad during the week. Ben Te’o got a head knock but the eight day turnaround (to Thomond Park) gives him a chance.”

Of Toulon he added: “It was important that we tried to build a lead. Unfortunately we allowed them to play too much at us in the second half. And we didn’t manage our field position pretty well. That power it does pay in the end. It takes its toll. That power coming off the bench takes its toll.

“It’s a challenge and something that we need to look at. It’s not something that we had to deal with in the past if you go back five, six years ago. It’s a very, very different challenge now. We need to reassess where we go in the tournament next year.

“It was a tough day for us there. Lot of good things in the first half but in the second we just got out muscled.”

“Toulon, it’s playing by slightly different rules. We need to have a good look how we take on a team like that.

"You see why they are the dominant team in Europe. They suffocate you, and wear you down."

Different financial rules? “Well, they are allowed sign 16 foreigners. The rules that we have are about bringing young guys through. Creating a pathway for a young player that wants to play for Leinster, to play for Ireland. It’s different. They sign experienced overseas players who have incredible experience and a lot of test match experience.

“When you add that to the mix it is very tough to play against it. I’m not sure what way it is going to go but it is getting more and more difficult.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent