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Dublin: 14°C Thursday 29 October 2020
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Cullen looks for answers after Leinster lose out in their 'war on two fronts'

The province’s head coach didn’t believe his team were physically overpowered by the English side’s pack.

LEINSTER VIEWED THE restart of the 2019/20 season as a World Cup campaign.

Their Guinness Pro14 run-in would lead directly into the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup and the aim was to be lifting the European trophy on 17 October to complete a double, as well as an invincible season.

The first part of the plan came to fruition as Leinster proved too good for Munster and Ulster in retaining their Pro14 title, but Saracens delivered a superb performance in Dublin on Saturday to ruin the second part, leaving Leinster looking for the answers as to what they got wrong.

johnny-sexton-speaks-to-his-team-after-the-game Johnny Sexton speaks to his Leinster team-mates after the defeat to Saracens. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When the level moved up a notch, Leinster weren’t at the right pitch. Saracens deserve every bit of credit that’s coming their way, but Leinster must put their finger on what led to first-half errors and poor decisions on their part, all of them helping to add up to a 22-3 lead for Sarries at the break.

“Off the back of winning the [Pro14] final last week, does it take away a little bit of that edge of us versus the edge that they have because they know it’s their sole focus?” wondered Cullen post-match on Saturday.

“So does winning a final lead to a little bit of complacency?

“It’s very hard to put your finger on it. In the past, we’ve been able to back up some of these big games and we had another gear in us I think. That’s the frustrating thing – we didn’t quite give a full account of ourselves.

“But the players did battle their way back into the game. At the start of the second half, we looked like a different team but after getting ourselves back into the game it was just a bit frustrating.”

Cullen felt Saracens were more than happy with the “stop-start nature of the game” as Leinster looked to mount a comeback but acknowledged that his team’s set-piece work at scrum, lineout, and maul simply wasn’t good enough in a game of this stature.

Cullen didn’t believe his team were physically overpowered by Saracens, instead underlining that the poor start left Leinster reeling in a more mental sense.

“We got shocked by where we were and a little bit spooked and you go into your shells,” said Cullen. 

leo-cullen Cullen has much to ponder in the coming weeks. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Pointing to strong starts his side have made in the past, Cullen rejected the notion that Leinster were suffering from any pre-match “performance anxiety, whatever that is” as they came up against a Saracens team containing many of the England players who had beaten Ireland in the Six Nations back in February.

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Instead, Cullen returned to the many moments that made up this contest, the decisions that didn’t go his team’s way, the errors that stifled their bid to settle into the game.

As Leinster were completing their Pro14 success, Saracens were plotting and planning for the European quarter-final, given that their restarted 2019/20 Premiership campaign is meaningless.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do for sure, a war on two fronts as they say,” said Cullen.

“When you’re focused on one thing and there’s different opposition coming up behind, it is a challenge. It’s something that we talk about on a regular basis.

“We talked about it in the lead-in to this sequence of games and even yesterday we were trying to compare it to that World Cup sequence. You’re playing in the pool stages and then you’re trying to win that last pool game and then you go into a sequence of quarter-final, semi-final, and final – that’s the four games.

“Last week, in theory, is our quarter-final which is a final but then you’ve got turn the page into a semi-final. Saracens have had a different opportunity to prepare slightly better for this game than we have, but that’s just the way it is. We knew that all the way along.

“That’s why we made some of the selections, just trying to keep things fresh and it was something that we tried to plan for. It was just unfortunate that it didn’t come off for us today.”

jordan-larmour-dejected-after-the-game Leinster's new 2020/21 season starts in two weekends' time. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As they face into the pain of their review, Leinster are relieved to have the new 2020/21 season starting so soon, with the Guinness Pro14 due to get underway in two weekends’ time. 

As for the 2019/20 campaign, there was another Pro14 title and a 25-game winning streak, but it ultimately ended in huge disappointment.

“It’s certainly an anti-climax,” said Cullen. “Everyone in the dressing room is gutted because they know there’s more in them. That’s just what we need to focus on, it’s about bottling up the pain of these defeats.

“We’ve lost to Saracens in a final [in 2019], now we’ve lost to Saracens in a quarter-final and, yes, we’ve done lots of good things over the course of this season.

“The only positive of when you get knocked out in the last game of the season, usually you have to wait three or four months before you turn the page but we have a game now in 13 days. We’ll turn our attention to that pretty quickly.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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