Leo Cullen pleads for patience as Leinster struggle
Leinster coach turns his focus to Ulster clash as his side seek a morale-boosting win
Leo Cullen after the Bath game: “I would ask the fans just to be patient and to come out and back the team on Friday.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Having lost their opening two games for the first time in 14 seasons, they face three-in-a-row reigning European champions Toulon at their Stade Felix Mayol cauldron in three weeks’ time. After Saturday’s 19-16 loss in Bath, to emerge from this pool of sharks now would be an escape of Houdini-like proportions.
Following on from the postponement of their initial home game against Bath last weekend, the under-powered champions lost their delayed opener away to Wasps by 32-6 yesterday, which meant the English club have done the double over two teams with six titles in the last seven years and completed an English clean sweep in six games over the weekend.
From a Leinster perspective, Wasps’ bonus point win could be interpreted in a couple of ways, but in all truth it merely underlines the incredible competitiveness of this group and will leave Toulon in the meanest of mean moods in three weeks’ hence.
For the time being, Leinster must focus on next Friday’s derby with an Ulster side almost as badly wounded by their 27-9 beating by Saracens in Belfast on Friday night. That makes it three defeats out of three against English sides for the Irish provinces and Clermont’s 34-29 win over the Ospreys yesterday means that in seven meetings with Premiership or Too 14 clubs, the Pro12 sides have lost the lot.
“I think it’s important that we be patient,” said Cullen when asked if he had a message for the Leinster fans. “It’s a challenging time. The way Europe has unfolded this year, for Leinster in particular and the fact that we had 20 guys coming back in (from the World Cup), and it’s a very short lead in time a high-intensity competition.
“So I would ask the fans just to be patient and to come out and back the team on Friday because the players and the organisation really needs the help that they give the team.”
Already struggling for form and fluency, Leinster must now also recover mentally from the bodyblows of the last two weeks. “It is going to be tough,” admitted Cullen. “For us now, we just need to park Europe for the next couple of weeks and get a bit more confidence in the league.”
Attributing their current plight in part to a World Cup hangover is countered by the evidence of history, given that Munster won the Heineken Cup in the season of the 2007 World Cup, and ditto Leinster in 2012 after the 2011 World Cup.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it and compare from four years ago, and eight years ago, right now,” said Cullen. “It’s a challenging period integrating that many players. I don’t think in the past we would have had as many players at the World Cup, so that’s probably proving the biggest challenge.”
Furthermore, no less than Owen Farrell on Friday night, George Ford (and likewise Anthony Watson) didn’t appear to be suffering any signs of a hangover from what must have been just as demoralising and anti-climactic World Cup, albeit neither had the additional injuries and ailments which Johnny Sexton also incurred.
Nevertheless, there’s the evidence of our own eyes over the last two weekends. Even in the course of their defeat to Bath, strikingly Leinster’s best performers were their trio of New Zealanders and others not involved in the World Cup, notably their young guns off the bench.
“Some of those young guys you mentioned, they’re in the system, they know the way we’re trying to do things that little bit better, so again, we’ll get better. We will get better. So I would ask people just to keep the faith.”
Cullen knows he has been thrown in at the deep end.
“I’m learning every day. It’s a tough challenge, but it’s one that I will hopefully bring out the best in the players. All I’m focused on right now is the short-term of Ulster on Friday. That’s all I can focus on: making sure the players are prepped as best as possible. We had a marked increase in our performance levels from last Sunday, and we were very close to winning that game out there. There were a lot of really good qualities the team showed, and we need to see more and more of those qualities over the next few weeks.”
Nevertheless managing the game time of those players who went to the well in the World Cup and are now seemingly finding that the well has run dry, looks a very real longer-term consideration.
“We already would be working on plans based on different scenarios, and just the nature of these games,” said Cullen.
“In this game block that we have, it’s important that manage our resource smartly. It’s important that we’re smart and we have fresh, enthusiastic guys that are willing to put in a massive physical shift every time they go out and play.”
Thrice winners themselves circa 2009 to 2012, Cullen defiantly maintained their Euro ship hasn’t sailed. “We’re still in it,” he said as he stood up to leave. “We’re still in it.”