Unanswered questions follow Leinster into the summer

Three seasons and no trophy, Leinster need silverware in 2018 or something’s got to give

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen at the RDS for Friday night’s Pro12 semi-final defeat. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen at the RDS for Friday night’s Pro12 semi-final defeat. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

In the wake of this disastrous and shuddering halt to Leinster’s promising season, Leo Cullen, unsolicited by the media, compared his Leinster to the Matt Williams version.

Friday’s comprehensive 27-15 loss to the Scarlets, like 14 years ago, saw a massive opportunity to win a trophy at IRFU HQ go a begging after some atrocious performances by senior players.

“If anything this just brings back memories I had from 2003,” said Cullen. “A home (European) semi-final against Perpignan, odds on favourites to win the game and we don’t deal with that pressure, that expectation.

“It can be hard to explain sometimes but the players are gutted. We just weren’t good enough today. We need to have a good look at ourselves as a group and figure out how we can be better.”

Presumably, for his and Leinster’s sake, the 39-year-old already knows how they can be better. Because season two of the Cullen era is no better, results wise, than Matt O’Connor’s time in charge. The confrontational Aussie, now back in charge at Leicester, was the last coach to deliver silverware to the province.

“The players have produced a lot of special moments this season and it’s almost as if we saved our worst home performance of the season to our last game.”

No almost about it.

The mitigating circumstances don’t add up: 14 man Scarlets - having lost one of their best performers in winger Steffan Evans after a spear tackle on the magnificent Garry Ringrose just before half-time - came to Dublin without Lions hooker Ken Owens (Leinster lost Sean O’Brien before kick-off but when do they expect to have him anymore?).

They defended as a full line which a lot of teams have started to do against us

The visitors constructed a 21-10 lead playing a wonderful offloading game that shows Auckland policeman Wayne Pivac up as a superior coach to his Leinster counterparts.

Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and captain Isa Nacewa all knew how the visitors would set up for the second half because it’s how every team defends Leinster nowadays.

“It is going to be a long review when we look up and see the space in the back field that we didn’t utilise and they defended as a full line which a lot of teams have started to do against us,” said Nacewa.

At half-time Cullen delivered the same message: “Stay composed (we told them). We knew they were going to fill the front line because we were chasing the game so we needed to be smart about taking the space in behind but we didn’t take the messages on board. We were chasing the game too early, we were panicking, and compounding error on error.”

Even against 14 men.

“Just a very, very disappointing way to end a very, very good Pro 12 campaign, when we brought through a lot of good young players.”

In fact, by internal Leinster standards, this Pro 12 campaign gets marked down as a failure.

Johnny Sexton, following a four week lay-off, offered up his worst performance in ages, both tactically and in general, dropping balls and kicking out on the full at a crucial moment.

On 18 minutes he was hurt carrying into contact. It wasn’t bad enough to end his game but Nacewa took over the place-kicking.

You have to take learnings from it and it has to hurt if we want to get better

The Fijian international, arguably, increased the panic Cullen spoke about when knocking the straight forward conversion of Jack Conan’s 64th minute try off the post. That kept the gap at six points, thereby forcing Leinster to keep chasing a try.

“Saving our worst performance of the season until the last game isn’t going to make for a short or exciting summer,” said Nacewa. “Some guys aren’t going to play in a Leinster jersey again so it’s a sad way for them to go out. I know the younger guys will learn from the month we just had because it is going to hurt all summer.

“You have to take learnings from it and it has to hurt if we want to get better. I’m one hundred percent confident in the group we have that we will take learnings from these tough days.

“It was a pretty lonely feeling standing out the middle of the pitch in Lyon after the European semi-final. We said out there in the middle of the field we didn’t want to have that feeling again.

The extra rugby deep into July could be the reason Leinster were so flat

“Let me tell you, the feeling is ten times worse losing at the RDS in front of our home crowd.

“But I know this group have taken massive strides this year and some guys have a bit more rugby to go, some don’t and hopefully that fuels the drive not to feel like this again.”

The extra rugby deep into July could be the reason Leinster were so flat. Nobody knows with certainty whether players switched off or stayed tuned after the Clermont defeat ended the chance of returning to a European final for the first time since 2012. Leinster’s five Lions could hardly be blamed for beginning mental preparation ahead of a gruelling seven weeks in New Zealand.

That said, fellow tourists Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies showed up on Friday night.

What’s clear is that summer tourists Jack McGrath (arm) and Tadhg Furlong (cramp); Rhys Ruddock (head), Luke McGrath (head) and Ringrose (knee) were unable to finish this game.

Some facts are indisputable. For all the improvement, for all the positive noises coming since Lancaster’s arrival last September, opening his English playbook for this young coaching ticket to devour, and for all the talent streaming through, Leinster have completed yet another trophy-less season. That’s three on the bounce. Two on Cullen’s watch.

Questions will follow them into summer. What’s the role of a “senior coach” in comparison to the head coach? Why was Girvan Dempsey given a one year extension when the others received two?

When all is said and done Leinster’s senior players failed to deliver.

The foreign recruits were not good enough this season or last. Hayden Triggs got a rousing reception leaving the field but Zane Kirchner, just like his Lyon cameo, emptied possession over the touchline at a crucial moment.

All the while, three young men who could become Irish internationals next month - Rory O’Loughlin, James Ryan and Andrew Porter - were sitting unused in the stand.

Much is expected of James Lowe - the Chiefs winger is having an electric Super Rugby campaign - while Scott Fardy needs to make an impact comparable to fellow Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom in 2009.

Because Leinster, as Nacewa and others always say, is a team that “chases trophies.”

They need to catch one next season or something’s got to give.

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