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A season which looked so promising for Leinster ends with a whimper

Defeat to the Bulls last night brought the curtain down on the 2021/22 campaign for the province.

Leinster's Garry Ringrose.
Leinster's Garry Ringrose.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WHAT A STRANGE, anticlimactic way for Leinster’s season to end. Early June, on a day that continuously danced between glorious sunshine and miserable downpours, less than 12,000 people were inside the RDS to watch the province take to the pitch for the final time this season.

There would have been plenty tuning in at home last night expecting to be back in Dublin 4 for a United Rugby Championship final next weekend, but the Bulls had other ideas.

Jake White’s side were dealt a difficult hand this week, a six-day turnaround in which they had to get themselves from South Africa to Dublin adding to the already difficult task of toppling Leinster on home soil.

Yet over the course of an enthralling 80 minutes they got the job done, ending Leinster’s charge for a fifth straight league title in impressive style.

Their 27-26 win is a real marker that the South Africans are not here just to make up the numbers in this competition. Later today, the Stormers have a great chance of making it an all-South Africa final when they host Ulster in Cape Town.

To reach a Champions Cup final and URC semi-final would represent a good body of work for most club sides but Leinster set the bar higher than that, and for them, a long, empty summer suddenly opens out ahead.

Some of the province’s stars will head to New Zealand as part of Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad, but for the coaches and many of the playing staff, there will be hours and days spent wondering how a season which for so long looked so promising ending up being their first without a trophy since 2017.

Yet in both the Champions Cup final and last night’s URC semi-final, the province were beaten by the better team.

On Friday, Leo Cullen spoke of how there is a certain consistency to how the Bulls play; power, aggression, workrate. Yet knowing what is coming is one thing, stopping it another.

cornal-hendricks-and-morne-steyn-celebrate Bulls’ Cornal Hendricks and Morne Steyn celebrate after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Bulls put Leinster under intense pressure with their linespeed and their defensive effort was at times outstanding – former Ulster man Marcel Coetzee leading the way with 22 tackles.

“You see the South African teams play, they don’t change much,” Cullen said.

“They’re very cohesive, they don’t make many changes in the course of the year, they do what they do and aren’t trying to hide anything. But they’re effective at what they do.

For our guys, I don’t know is there a little bit of an expectancy we’ll get through to the next round, that’s just not how it worked. Credit to the Bulls, they came with a plan, executed it well on the day, and our guys were just not quite good enough unfortunately.”

It was interesting to hear Cullen use the word expectancy, shortly after he had searched for a better word than ‘complacency’ to describe his team’s lead-in to the game – last weekend’s 76-14 win over Glasgow clearly not the type of preparation he would have wanted ahead of what was a much more demanding semi-final.

“You always have that in the back of your mind. There were certain things in that game (Glasgow) that came a little bit easy to us,” he continued.

It was striking to see how the pressure impacted Leinster last night as the error count rose, the setpiece creaked and their handling skills dissolved under the rain. 

“It’s things that we talk about all the time, that mix of when you’re not quite in your flow so to speak, and then you’ve got to revert to that kind of pressure rugby game and the Bulls are traditionally one of the teams that play pressure rugby better than anybody.

“South Africa play pressure rugby better than anybody and they’re successful on some of those big days, so that’s the bit that we need to try and figure out when it comes to these big days, because lots of really positive stuff and things have gone into the course of this season.

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jamison-gibson-park-tackled-by-harold-vorster Leinster's Jamison-Gibson Park tackled by Harold Vorster of the Bulls. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We blooded a lot of young players and we’re bringing young players through during the season and gained that bit of experience, but even the young guys, they come up short when we’re away in South Africa, even though they do lots of great things when they’re out there.

“So yeah, it’s unbelievably disappointing and it’s hard to verbalise because as I said there’s so much work that’s gone in to get us to this point, but you need to be able to deliver on the big days and unfortunately for us we weren’t good enough on the day.

“I don’t think we were quite at our best, and that self-reflection needs to take place by everybody from an individual point of view, but then we need to do that collectively as well.

Unfortunately, we’ll be watching the final this year. We’ve been involved in finals in the last number of years. We’d love to be there again. It’s bitterly disappointing for our players who are coming to the end of their Leinster careers as well, whether they’re retiring or moving on to new challenges.

“We all want to give everyone the perfect send off but unfortunately we’re not going to have the perfect send off this year.”

Some will see this defeat for Leinster as a win for the URC. No matter what happens now, we’re going to have a new league champion this season and the lay of the land certainly looks different now that the South African teams are here and making their presence felt.

It won’t offer them much solace at the moment, but having come up short against so many power teams in recent seasons – Saracens, La Rochelle, the Bulls – more consistent exposure to these type of experiences will surely stand to Leinster in the long run.

“It’s what the competition has needed for sure,” Cullen added.

Down in South Africa it’s the number one game there. It’s what’s on the TV all the time and that’s the challenge for our guys to really understand. You’re up against the country with the world champions, you see the talent pool in terms of some of the big schools and universities. Everything will be feeding into the four franchises now so for our guys to understand that, like it’s a proper bloody challenge for us now.

“But it’s great, that’s what you want. You want to be able to test yourself against the best teams that are out there. It’s all the things we talked about, the threats and the dangers, you’re seeing it out there today.

“And we need to be on our best, at our very best in these playoff games, and I don’t think we were at our best. So everyone needs to self-reflect, me included.

“We’re not looking for any excuses. The Bulls had a six-day turnaround and they had to travel up here in multiple groups so you have to give a huge amount of credit as to how they have gone about their week and how they executed in terms of their plan because they were better on the day.”

No complaints there. The Bulls have well and truly arrived to the party. 

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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