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All-for-one, one-for-all attitude evident as Leinster win yet again

Leo Cullen reacts to Leinster’s third Pro14 title in a row by praising his team’s collective effort.

Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden lift the PRO14 trophy.
Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden lift the PRO14 trophy.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT FELT LIKE an office retirement party as much as a trophy presentation, the absence of spectators allowing the few press men in the Aviva Stadium to eavesdrop on the pitchside conversations, looking on as the Leinster players delivered a farewell gesture to two departing heroes. For the soon-to-retire Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden, the honour of lifting the PRO14 trophy would be theirs.

No one should be overly surprised by what happened, not just in terms of the result – a 27-5 win for Leinster that secured their third straight PRO14 title and 25th win on the trot, but also their post-match display of brotherhood. The core philosophy of this team is to share the load, 53 players used in this successful campaign, no one deemed untouchable. Last night, Kearney – the most decorated medalist in Irish rugby history – couldn’t even make the match-day 23 whereas Johnny Sexton, the captain, had to be content with a place on the bench, as Leo Cullen kept one eye on next week’s Champions Cup tie against Saracens.

Afterwards Cullen used the words ‘common sense’ to explain his overall approach to team selection and squad rotation, in keeping with his understated manner. There’s a touch of the Jim Gavin about Cullen at times, not just in terms of his quiet persona but also his steady accumulation of trophies. At 42, he has already won four of them. Only one head coach in Leinster’s history — Joe Schmidt — can match that tally, albeit Schmidt has two European Cups to Cullen’s one.

The incumbent could soon add a second Champions Cup title, though, given Leinster’s  impressive habit of maximising their opportunities in games when they are under the cosh.

Last night their line-out malfunctioned and the first half saw Ulster enjoy plenty of possession in the Leinster red zone. They only managed five points, though. The blue wall was solid, Josh van der Flier excelling to win the man of the match award, a week after Will Connors had caught the eye against Munster.

josh-van-der-flier-is-presented-with-the-guinness-pro14-player-of-the-match-award Josh van der Flier was last night's man of the match. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Will has been exceptional at various different stages of the season and was deserving of his chance [in the semi],” Cullen said afterwards. “For that game, Josh was unlucky to miss out; I don’t think he had done anything wrong. Again, for those guys to keep their focus and prolong their performances… that rotation and freshness is important.

“In people’s minds, maybe they have their starting XV but it’s not as simplistic as that. For me, it’s important that we have guys coming in to give fresh energy at different stages. I thought Josh did that and he led the forwards well, being quick off the line. That energy he brings – that physical presence at the ruck, was pleasing.”

Pointedly Cullen referred to Ulster’s post-match humility, their willingness to wait on the Aviva pitch until the last of the Leinster squad members had collected their medal as a sign of their class. On top of all that, though, he was also fulsome of praise of his own team, for the fact they did not “blink” when they were five points down, for the fact so many of their squad members could not join them in the stadium last night because of government guidelines. Their absence dampened the post-match celebrations.

“You have a lot of guys that have played such an important role over the course of the season for us who could not be with us (last night) in the stadium,” said Cullen.

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“They are currently training with us and have been exceptional for us over the course of the year. To go through the season unbeaten, if you go back to where the season started, which was in the middle of the World Cup, you have to give huge credit to those players for keeping the show on the road, winning those games when our World Cup players were away. So the hardest bit for us, right now, is that they’re not here with us. You’d love to have them here but, on the flip side, it’s important to have some level of context. We’re still appreciative of the fact that we’re back playing rugby.”

And it is as if they have never been away. Along the way to this title, Leinster have learnt how to win in different ways, usually by steam-rollering teams, occasionally by looking into their souls. Last night they did a bit of both. When they went missing at the start, search parties were dispatched. Ronan Kelleher’s darts at the line-out had been inaccurate but other parts of their game functioned well.

In defence, Leinster decoded Billy Burns’s intentions, Robbie Henshaw collecting the Ulster 10’s careless 46th minute pass to run uninterrupted for the posts, the game’s decisive moment.

robbie-henshaw-intercepts-to-score-a-try Robbie Henshaw touches down for Leinster's second try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

From that moment forward, Leinster continued with the rhythms of their play: Gibson Park’s probing, Caelan Doris’ direct running and late on, his finishing. Moment by moment, they continued to make the right choices after that tricky opening, turning a five-point deficit on four minutes into a 22-point winning margin by full-time.

The victory was deserved. In comparison with Schmidt’s successful Leinster team, this one is not as showy but there are moments of subtlety mixed with the functionality of their play. “With these players,” Cullen said, “the team comes first.”

Never was this more apparent than at the end, when club captain, Sexton, and the captain on the night, Garry Ringrose, stood aside to allow Kearney and McFadden collect the trophy. “They are the best team mates you could hope to have,” van der Flier said. “It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to them.”

That won’t be for another week at least, possibly longer, depending on how Leinster do against Saracens in next weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final.

Tomorrow they go back to work, the regularity of their routine, dictated by rugby’s congested calendar. All that seems to change is the face on the Leinster player climbing up the steps to collect club rugby’s prizes. Last year it was Sean O’Brien, before that Isa Nacewa. Three years in a row, some Leinster player has done it in this particular competition. You can safely bet on it happening a fourth time next season.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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