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Pain of defeat and 'what ifs' still raw for Leinster as Cullen sets sights on another semi-final

The head coach says he is ‘genuinely excited’ about Leinster’s future given the age profile of his squad yesterday.

Lancaster and Cullen at training in UCD today.
Lancaster and Cullen at training in UCD today.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THERE WASN’T EVEN a full 24 hours breathing space between Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final exit and Leo Cullen’s press conference at the province’s Clonskeagh base today.

So, the pain of exit, and the manner of it, was still etched deep on the faces of staff and players.

A player of the month award couldn’t muster a smile onto the face of Joey Carbery and when Cullen was asked to compare the feeling to his playing experiences there was more of a grimace to his expression than anything elso.

“We lost to Perpignan in 2003, I remember it like it was yesterday,” the head coach said, with the ghosts of semi-finals past lurking on his shoulders.

“It really does stick with you for a long, long time especially when there’s things you feel you could have done better…”

There’s no getting away from the mountain Leinster gave themselves to climb, a 15  - 0 deficit inside 15 minutes.

Though they ultimately come away with credit for steadying the ship and forcing Clermont to dig deep for the win, the malfunctions of the line-out and their vulnerability to David Strettle in that period will have been first on the agenda in this morning’s review.

“Firstly the line-out: there’s a delay with the ball — and it’s how we manage that situation so we’re not standing with tension building. The ball is called to the tail, it’s a good call, it’s free. We don’t execute our drill and the throw is a fraction over.

Another one, we don’t make a great call, Clermont contest well, then we get a bit jittery. We lose three line-outs of the first four. When it happens in the first 15 minutes it builds pressure on ourselves.

“Defensively, on the edges, we just got caught watching and not aware of that player on the very, very edge on the touchline. We got a bit sucked in. It’s something we would have practiced quite a bit, we just didn’t deal with it – obvsiously Isa is binned, so he’s not there for one.”

Nacewa returned though, and Richardt Strauss began finding targets with his darts. So Leinster scrapped their way back into a game that should have been well beyond them. Indeed against anyone else at this level, it might well have been, but Clermont and their inescapable history of falling at late hurdles in European competition looked ripe for picking by Leinster.

Raking over the what-might-have-beens of Dan Leavy’s 55th minute chalked off try doesn’t exactly ease the anguish of defeat. But it’s tough to avoid. And the alternate scenario is clear in Cullen’s head:

“The momentum of the game is completely different,” Cullen begins with all the ‘ifs’ acknowledged.

“Suddenly Clermont are the ones that have to play. I thought we looked, bar the first 15 minutes, comfortable in defence. We could put defensive pressure on them, probe the ball in behind them and make them play out from deep. The game takes on a different complexion…”

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Ross Molony, Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier dejected after the game Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Alas, the Laws were obeyed and Leinster were not able to add another comeback onto their European highlight reel. But, like Munster, Leinster don’t have to look very far for solace.

With the rising stars of Leavy, Carbery, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Peter Dooley and Josh van der Flier all involved yesterday and the season’s breakthrough talents Adam Byrne, Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin primed to go against Glasgow, Leinster have a squad with many more miles on the clock.

“There’s so many of them in that 21 to 25 bracket, I am genuinely excited for the future for Leinster,” says Cullen.

I’m really proud of the effort the players put in. We went through it today as a group. It’s still pretty raw and fresh in peoples’ minds. Players did well fronting up. We’ve a big game on Friday in the RDS, so it’s important we try to get it out of our system as soon as we possibly can.

“The players have been very open and honest today. They want to learn the lessons, they want to see if they can get better and move forward.

“One of the good things is that we know we have another semi-final to come in three four weeks time. We’ll make sure we learn the lessons, so we’re better when we’re in that scenario again.”

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Sean Farrell

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