Gerry Thornley: Defiant Cullen signals Leinster not for turning
Head coach believes ‘we were up against a very good team, heavily resourced’
Maro Itoje of Saracens celebrates with a team-mate and Owen Farrell after their Champions Cup final victory over Leinster at St James’s Park in Newcastle. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
In the wake of such a salutary defeat to the remorseless Saracens juggernaut, the huge army of Leinster fans who had invaded Newcastle and those watching at home could be forgiven for wondering how on earth their largely home-grown model can re-scale European rugby.
But Leo Cullen maintained, defiantly, that the model will not change, and reminded us that we’ve been here before.
Amid the gloom of Saturday’s 20-10 Champions Cup final defeat at St James’ Park, the Leinster head coach sought to put it into context.
“We were up against a very, very good team, heavily resourced. A few seasons ago we didn’t have a chance against teams like this. That was the sort of general public perception, or one that certainly a lot of guys were writing about. And I do think that we have a chance against teams like this now.”
Cullen pointed out that they won the trophy last season, reached the final this season, started well and had their chances, particularly either side of half-time.
“That’s just us not being quite clinical enough, Saracens on the other hand being very clinical. That’s probably the period that is the winning and losing of the game. In terms of where we’re going forward, we just continue to invest in a lot of young guys. We’re in a different model to what they have. So we just need to get on with that and keep investing in some of the strengths we have.”
He also cited Leinster’s huge supporter base.
“It’s a real point of difference for us and it’s important for us that we keep trying to display characteristics that people want to support, and that level of support is important because that allows us to keep investing in facilities and the young guys.
“That’s the model. It’s not going to change drastically. We’re not suddenly signing five world-class players. It doesn’t work like that. So it is what it is. We’re not a million miles away, you could see that in the game today.”
Recalling how Leinster beat Saracens last season and also those pivotal spells either side of half-time, Cullen said: “That’s cup rugby, it’s on the day, you’re never too sure where it’s going to go. Where do we go next? We’re off to the RDS next Saturday,” he said, smiling, in reference to next Saturday’s Pro14 semi-final against Munster.
Yet despite Leinster’s remarkable production line, their bench looked thinner in many respects than Saracens’ last Saturday, as the IRFU-led shuffling of players compounded the departure of Isa Nacewa, with Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery moving on. This will be followed now by Jack McGrath and Seán O’Brien doing likewise.
“That’s just a natural evolution as well,” said Cullen, who nonetheless admitted: “Look, it’s tricky. There’s certain market forces that make it difficult, for sure. But every team has some sort of thing that they will complain about. We don’t want to complain too much, just get on with what we’ve got and make sure we are as good as we possibly can on any given day.”
Munster have had a week of preparation under their belt already, and I’m sure they will be geared up
Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney were amongst those receiving attention at the end, and it remains to be seen how much Leinster need to be refreshed after such a bruising final. But, looking ahead to next Saturday’s rendezvous with the auld enemy, Cullen said: “Munster have the advantage in many ways because they’ve had a week of preparation under their belt already, and I’m sure they will be geared up.
“Even listening to some of the noise coming out of their camp as well, some coaches moving on, listening to some of the players and the way they are talking about not wanting to finish playing for Munster until they win some silverware. So you know how much it means to them.
“So it should be a good battle.”