Pain of defeat spurred Leinster towards redemption in Pro14 final
Loss to Saracens in Champions Cup threatened to derail remainder of season
Leinster’s James Lowe and Jack Conan celebrate after beating Glasgow in the Pro14 final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
If Glasgow were left to curse the rain Gods in front of the biggest home crowd they’ve ever enjoyed, or will do for some time, then likewise Leinster’s defeat by Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup final was as bad for them as it had been for Munster.
The pain of that defeat will remain with Leinster forever more, but the best way of substantially applying some relieving balm was to at least retain one of their two trophies.
“It’s still an amazing achievement to get to two finals,” maintained Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, and it assuredly is, but he knows better than anyone that two losing finals would have been close to unbearable for the entire organisation.
“We were distraught, I don’t know what the word to describe it is, after losing that game, for so many different reasons,” reflected Cullen of that Newcastle final in a crammed passageway of Celtic Park on Saturday night.
“It was almost like you need to get out of that hangover, but you know it’s going to be there for us for a long time,” said Cullen. Citing the memory of Leicester’s defeat by Wasps in the 2007 Heineken Cup final, the day after Leinster’s loss to Saracens a fortnight ago he wandered down to Sandymount.
“I walked into my local park and who did I meet only Eoin Reddan, who was playing for Wasps that day,” said Cullen in that wry, laughing manner of his. “I was like, ‘oh brilliant, seeing you reminds me of the last time we lost a European final!”
“Johnny mentioned regrets, those regrets are there forever. But, as he also said, we’ve been to four finals in the last two years and winning three is a nicer ring to it than two wins.”
Seeing how the defeat in Newcastle motivated them to win their first final in this competition outside of Dublin, Johnny Sexton hopes the pain lingers longer.
“We’ll still take that hurt from the Sarries game with us I think. I hope we do anyway, because there is so much that we can learn from it and bring into next season.”
James Lowe also recalled the aftermath of that Saracens defeat in the wake of this win.
“Aw mate it was like someone blooming passed away, it was. It was devastation. You work so hard, you get to the last hurdle and we didn’t quite get over it. It still hurts thinking about it.
“It was a mourning process, but we had people come in and talk to us and we opened up as a group, talked about what was needed and it was about putting those words into actions. A lot of very high-profile players probably took it on themselves, the reason why we lost, but obviously it comes down to a few moments, we came up short. We learned from it though, that’s the big thing.”
Confirming that a sports psychologist had addressed the squad in the days after that defeat, Lowe said: “It was more about just us, more than anything. We were all ‘what if’, so we managed to just talk things through as a team.
“We knew that if we kept moping around about it, Munster were just around the corner biting at the lip, so we bounced back and played awesome against Munster at the RDS, and we made it to here. It was another challenge and we managed to jump the hurdle.”
Also recalling the aftermath of that loss to Saracens, Stuart Lancaster said: “They’re a very honest group and very hard-working. We felt very bad that we let down the supporters who had come all that way.
“But you talk about what created the momentum to beat Munster and it was that Monday, for me. To be able to take the lessons from the Saracens defeat and turn them into a positive by Tuesday, to then defeat Munster, our big rivals, then come away from home in Glasgow’s home city, is a great testament to the character of the squad and their ability to learn and grow and improve.”
Reflecting on his own journey from England’s pool exit at the last World Cup, Lancaster said: “It’s been a brilliant move. If you rewind the clock, it was September 2016 and Leinster had lost the Pro14 final against Connacht and I was out of work! It was a chance phone call. Leo rang me out of the blue.
“I came in the week of a Glasgow game away, which we lost. But I saw enough in that week to know that this was the right move. I knew it was a great group of players. I was impressed with their attitude from the start. It also worked from a family point of view. I didn’t need to move them, I could commute from Leeds to Dublin easily. One year became two years and now three. I’ve signed for another two years and I’m happy to stay.”