'We got a little bit spooked... they probably managed the big occasion better'

Leinster boss Leo Cullen had major regrets over his side’s first-half showing against Saracens.

LEINSTER BOSS LEO Cullen said Saracens handled the pressure of knock-out rugby better than his team as the English side secured a 25-17 victory to advance into the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals.

Guinness Pro14 champions Leinster exit at the quarter-final of the European competition after seeing their 25-game winning streak ended by Saracens, the last team to beat them before this disappointing showing at the Aviva Stadium.

Leinster were trailing 22-3 at half-time following a disastrous opening 40 minutes and though they improved in the second half, Mark McCall’s visitors had enough quality and resilience to hold out. 

johnny-sexton-dejected-after-the-game Leinster captain Johnny Sexton after his side's 25-17 defeat. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I just thought we got a little bit spooked pretty much from the kick-off, we don’t quite deal with it and Saracens score,” said Cullen post-match. “We struggled to get ourselves into the game and we played right into their hands in many ways.

“It comes back to that mentality that we know they have – 3, 6, 9, 12 [points] – and we handed them those opportunities. On those long ones, Elliot Daly did well to slot them over from 50-metres-plus. They’re all things we were aware of coming into the match but we couldn’t quite deal with it.

“Saracens, you go through their team and they have a hell of a lot of top-level experience and they probably managed the big occasion better. It’s a big occasion. I know there’s not a crowd here but it’s still a big occasion.

“We’ve had the distraction of the [Pro14] semi-final and final over the last couple of weeks and they had a very singular focus. These games come down to small margins and we didn’t get enough right in the first half and we dug ourselves into a pretty big hole.

“The guys showed character in the second half but we couldn’t do enough to get out of it.”

While Leinster bullied their Irish opposition on the gainline in the Pro14 in recent weeks, Saracens were more than a match in the power stakes in this quarter-final as the likes of Maro Itoje, Vincent Koch, Michael Rhodes, and the Vunipola brothers fronted up.

“They have a power element to their team and their game, and we couldn’t do enough really, to be honest,” said Cullen. “That’s the big thing we need to fix for some of these big games against the top teams in Europe.

“We got to the final [last season] and got beaten by Saracens. They’ve had some turnover of players and I think people just assumed that with the turnover of players they wouldn’t be left with much, but you go through their 1 to 15 and they’re still a very strong outfit with a hell of a lot of experience, guys who have been involved in a World Cup final at the start of the season. They’re guys who have produced on the biggest stage before.

“We just need to be better. We need to figure out how we can be better.”

caelan-doris-dejected-after-the-game Caelan Doris and Robbie Henshaw after the full-time whistle. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Cullen wasn’t quite drawn on whether he felt that Rhodes should have been carded for his late tackle on Johnny Sexton in the second half, simply saying, “Potentially. They had a good look at it, they made their call, so we just have to get on with it.”

The Leinster boss felt the likes of Ryan Baird, Ronan Kelleher, and Josh van der Flier made a good impact off the bench but “unfortunately, it was too little too late.”

Cullen had no gripes with Saracens’ use of the box kick as a tactic to pressure Leinster and win the ball back, pointing out that their 22-3 lead made such a focus sensible.

“It’s classic cup rugby – pressure, pressure game. Set-piece dominance, which I think they clearly edged that side of the game.

“Off the back of that then, once you have got a lead, for them it’s about making sure they get into the semi-final. If you have got a lead, you are trying to protect it at all costs. The problem for us was that we were chasing the lead.”

Leinster now have a short break before the start of the new Pro14 season on the first weekend of October but they will watch on with frustration as Saracens play in the semi-finals.

The English side won’t feature in the Champions Cup in 2020/21 as they spend a season in the Championship, but they have ended Leinster’s European campaign in the past two campaigns before bowing out.

“We’re not a million miles away,” said Cullen. “We did stretch them and test them. We just need to be that little bit more clinical and take some of the opportunities and not give them easy access into the game.”

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