Leo Cullen: Leinster were ‘spooked’by Saracens’ fast start
‘They have a power element to their team and their game and we couldn’t do enough’
Leo Cullen has said Leinster were ‘spooked’ at the start of their defeat to Saracens. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leo Cullen used the word “spooked” repeatedly in describing his team’s first-half performance following their uncertain start against a predictably fired-up Saracens, after this crushing Champions Cup quarter-final defeat.
“I just thought we got a little bit spooked pretty much from the kick-off, we don’t quite deal with it and Saracens score. We struggled to get ourselves into the game and we played right into their hands in many ways.
“It comes back to that mentality that we know they have - three, six, nine, 12 (points), and we handed them those opportunities. On those long ones, Elliot Daly did well to slot them over from 50-metres-plus. They’re all things we were aware of coming into the match but we couldn’t quite deal with it.
“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 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.”
All of this was particularly frustrating as little about Saracens’ performance surprised him.
“They have a power element to their team and their game and we couldn’t do enough really, to be honest. That’s the big thing we need to fix for some of these big games against the top teams in Europe.”
Going back to Saracens’ victory over Leinster in last season’s final in May 2018, Cullen said: “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 one 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. We’re not a million miles away. We did stretch them and test them. We just need to be that little bit more clinical and take some of the opportunities and not give them easy access into the game.
“It’s frustrating. The game last year, I thought we started the first 35 minutes of that game, we handled it pretty well in Newcastle. We got ourselves in that situation where we were the ones 10-0 ahead.
“We didn’t manage that period on half-time and even the start of the second-half, we had a lot of opportunities where we didn’t quite nail them.
“We get spooked by some uncharacteristic errors at the very start of the game. We don’t quite get ourselves back into the game at any point... well we do get ourselves back into the game but we just couldn’t continue that positive momentum we had around the 60 minute mark.”
World Rugby should be less than impressed by the failure of the fussy French referee Pascal Gauzère and his officials to take more severe sanction for the late, high hit by Michael Rhodes on Johnny Sexton, although Cullen played this incident down.
Asked if it the hit might have led to a yellow card, Cullen said: “Potentially. They had a good look at it, they made their call, so we just have to get on with it.”
However, he was clearly aggrieved by the 15-10 penalty count against Leinster, and specifically how a couple of his pack’s mauls were sacked, as well as the litany of seven scrum penalties in favour of Saracens which went much of the way to deciding the game.
Cullen admitted that Leinster had not problem solved this ongoing issue, albeit their difficulties were “a little bit” due to the interpretations of Gauzère said Cullen, who added: “They load up in a lot of ways. There is that weight. You see some of the collapses, that’s quite often due to the fact that they don’t have stability.
“There is the axis as well of the scrum. We are getting penalised for our loosehead kicking his hips out. On another day, you can argue that it is their loose-ead who is the one who is instigating that movement.
“Again, this is me just making some assessments here, but it plays a huge part in the game obviously. We will look back on all of those, we just need to be a bit smarter in how we manage some of that because it’s very hard to win games off the back of giving away however many penalties it was in that facet of the game.”
Saracens also took a leaf out of the Munster manual in box-kicking ad nauseum, although Cullen noted: “Well, it’s different I think when you are box-kicking when you are 22-3 ahead. We know that’s what they are going to do.
“They are a very hard team to chase the game against because of that very reason. Obviously the Munster game is slightly different because they were the ones chasing the game and we were just able to deal with that threat at the time.
“But yeah, it’s classic cup rugby games - pressure, pressure game. Set-piece dominance, which I think they clearly edged that side of the game.
“Off the back of that then, once you have got a lead, for them it’s about making sure they get into the semi-final. If you have got a lead, you are trying to protect it at all costs.
“The problem for us was that we were chasing the lead. We brought on some guys off the bench. I thought they added good impact.
“We wanted to have some of those guys on the bench because if we get into that position, it was important to have that ball carrying ability.
“The likes of Ronan (Kelleher), Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier. Unfortunately it was too little too late.”