Leo Cullen hails Leinster’s composure after another nightmare start
Head coach says Johnny Sexton was fine after game after failing HIA
Leinster players and staff huddle on pitch following the victory over Exeter in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter- final at Sandy Park. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leo Cullen hailed the composure which his players displayed in overcoming an early 14-0 deficit to beat the reigning European and English champions Exeter at Sandy Park.
Such calmness under fire was all the more commendable given that last September at the same juncture of this competition Leinster were so rocked by falling 9-3 down against Saracens, who were then the reigning European and English champions, that by the time the interval arrived they were 22-3 in arrears.
“We’re really pleased because it was a very shaky start which reminded us of the last quarter-final of this competition that we played in where we also had a very shaky start,” said Cullen with a wry chuckle after this ultimately convincing 34-22 win.
“But I thought the prep during the week was good from the players. They knew the enormity of the challenge it was coming over here.
“The players showed really good composure and I thought the bench added through the course of the game as well, which is important, so overall a great squad effort to get through.
“We’ll sit back and enjoy the games tomorrow and see who we face next, which is great.”
An open draw will be made after the completion of the quarter-finals, where Leinster are destined to face Top 14 opposition, be it La Rochelle and Ronan O’Gara, or the winners of the Bordeaux Begles/Racing tie, or the winners of Clermont and Toulouse.
The one discordant note was the sight of Johnny Sexton departing and again not returning following an HIA.
“Johnny is okay there, so he’ll go through the graduated return-to-play,” said Cullen. “I thought it was a great credit to Ross when he comes in and is so composed the whole time, nailed his kicks, and steered us around the field. We’re lucky with the two of them, we really are, because they’re great generals for the group.
“They have dovetailed pretty well over the course of the week as well. Obviously, it’s tough for Johnny coming off the way he did but I thought Ross was excellent when he came on,” said Cullen in relation to Ross Byrne, who typified Leinster’s composure and, indeed, drove it.
‘He’s been outstanding for us,” said Cullen. “We’re really lucky with the age profile of the guys as well, with Harry [Byrne] putting on pressure from behind so they’re all equally important but I thought Ross was great the way he comes on.
“Lukey [McGrath] has been going really well for us at nine, so the leadership of those guys is growing all the time. It’s just important because some of the selection calls are very, very tight as we all know.”
All that said and done, it had been an unnerving start.
“The contact area was always going to be huge on both sides of the ball. For whatever reason, whether it was anxiety or whatever that is, we give away a penalty, we give away a free-kick and then Exeter score off the scrum.
“We fall off a few tackles or get pulled apart for the second try quite easily I thought, chasing rucks. But after that, we kind of get into our game better, particularly around the contact point. There were huge shifts from a lot of players that were good and direct in terms of some of their contacts and carriers.
“As the game wore on, we looked defensively better and better, bar the start of the second half again, when we had a wobbly moment.”
“The biggest thing is we’re trying to take care of all the guys. Caelan and James are pretty close to a return now so Johnny, again, like similar to all the guys. We just have to make sure we look after them in the right manner,” said Cullen.
“Just in terms of graduated return to play, we just need to see how he comes through and, again, the medics will make the calls there and make sure all our guys are being seen by the right people. That’s the most important piece because we want the guys playing for a long, long time at the club so we will always be cautious with our decision making in that area.”
In stark contrast to the composure shown by Leinster, the Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter lamented how his side began to chase the game prematurely, and conceded: “I do think we have to give Leinster immense credit today because they kept up the intensity the game and just never let us settle.”