Leo Cullen says Leinster weren’t ‘clinical enough’ in La Rochelle loss
La Rochelle have the best defence in the Top 14 and it showed on Sunday
Leinster players stand dejected after their Champions Cup defeat to La Rochelle. Photo: Manuel Blondeau /Inpho
Leinster could have few complaints after their dreams of a fifth star were ended by a powerful La Rochelle side who belied their lack of experience at this stage of the Heineken Champions Cup, and afterwards Leo Cullen didn’t have any gripes.
Although Tadhg Furlong’s early try and a yellow card for La Rochelle’s South African flanker Wiaan Liebenberg was fair reward for an early start, Leinster struggled to make inroads into La Rochelle’s Ronan O’Gara-designed defence. A 13-12 lead felt skimpy, all the more so as the tide had turned discernibly in favour of Les Maritimes.
“We weren’t clinical enough really,” admitted Cullen. “In the first half we created lots of opportunities, they just hung in there well, didn’t they, just keeping the scoreboard, three, six, nine.
“We couldn’t pull far enough away from them after having lots of good pressure and play. A few big turnovers at different stages as well, a few turnovers then at the start of the second half, which gives them more field position and territory.”
Leinster’s attack having been gobbled up, Cullen also conceded that La Rochelle’s power carriers began to make inroads.
“Then they just start to play that pressure game, some of the big power runners they have, particularly (Will) Skelton. A couple of guys start slipping off tackles, particularly on him, and he definitely is a handful, gets in for his try towards the end.
“That was kind of the game, not quite accurate enough from us at various different stages in terms of nailing some opportunities and a couple of big turnovers around the ruck in both halves.
“First half we can’t stretch our lead to get far enough in front and then second half which just gives them a lot of access down to our end of the field.
“A lot goes into getting us to this point so it’s pretty disappointing when we don’t give a full account of ourselves on the day.”
Having been awarded the first five penalties, thereafter the penalty count went 14-6 against Leinster to finish 14-11 in the end.
“A number of them were unfortunately when we had the ball so it just means we’re not quite accurate. I don’t know the exact, specific number but a lot of them were when we were in possession.
“They were very aggressive around the contact area, very aggressive at the ruck and from us we just need to be able to deal with it better, understand the referee’s interpretation on the day. The penalty count was high in our favour but that changed either side of half-time. So it’s incredibly frustrating for everyone. The guys are gutted,” admitted Cullen.
Rare is the day when Leinster’s attack is made to look so impotent. La Rochelle have the best defence in the Top 14 through a system designed to attack the ball. It worked a treat here and for this the former forwards coach now in charge of La Rochelle, Jono Gibbes, paid tribute to Ronan O’Gara.
“I think that’s a massive credit to Rog in that we were under pressure, we knew they were going to fire good shots at us and I think the fact that we changed nothing in our defence and just stayed resolute, stayed disciplined to the system that he’s put in place, that he’s created and it told.
“It’s a compliment to hear Leinster struggled against our defence, that’s always good, but we still conceded two tries, so there’s work to do. Certainly the discipline around the breakdown and being patient about when to go out at the ball on the ground and when to just keep people up on feet, that’s something that we can take forward from that experience today.”
Reflecting on their difficult start, Gibbes said his team steadied the ship after a difficult start before drawing breath at half-time.
“We realised that level necessary, the concentration that it was going to take and sort of took a bit of confidence from the quality of their opening salvo and the score at half-time.
“Then we talked about being a bit more accurate with the ball. Holding the ball obviously was pretty important and we built pressure and we got our noses out in front at the end.
“It’s an important victory for our guys, to build the belief to take on a big team like that with a lot of experience in knock-out football in Europe and to get past them was pretty satisfying. But certainly a hell of an experience.”