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Dublin: 3°C Monday 25 January 2021

'We’re not going to suddenly sign five world-class players, it doesn’t work like that'

Leinster left Newcastle with a few regrets but feeling they had got close to Saracens.

THERE IS NO denying that Saracens were physically better than Leinster on Saturday at St James’ Park, as they regularly dominated the collisions.

“You know, it’s genetics really, you can really only do some much about it,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen afterwards, having touched on the sheer size of the likes of Billy Vunipola, Will Skelton and Maro Itoje.

And while Leinster’s players felt that Saracens had been clinical in this game, it’s worth noting that the English side’s first five visits into Leinster’s 22 yielded no points at all. That’s profligacy by any measure.

Rory O'Loughlin, Jordan Larmour and Max Deegan dejected after the game Leinster lost 20-10 at St James' Park. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That Saracens could be wasteful in that way and still win by 10 points, as well as being so physically dominant, suggests that Leinster were truly fighting an insurmountable battle.

And yet, this was a game they could have won.

“We had the beating of them today,” said fullback Rob Kearney afterwards as he rejected the notion that Saracens’ power – much like England’s in the Six Nations against Ireland – made it an impossible task.

“It just comes down to not taking our chances,” said Kearney.

There were several moments of the genre, but none more obvious than when Garry Ringrose so uncharacteristically failed to pass to his right in the 47th minute when Leinster had a clear overlap and a major chance to score a try.

He carried instead and then on the next phase, with the numbers-up situation still on, Luke McGrath opted to pass to his left. Saracens don’t give up too many windows of opportunity and a phase later they had recovered their astounding levels of organisation.

Speaking of key moments, there was also the much-discussed decision to keep the ball on the pitch before half-time, allowing Saracens to win a penalty and score a try that sent them into the break at 10-10.

“Hindsight’s a nice thing,” said Luke McGrath, who box kicked the ball back to Saracens.

“You’d probably just stop the game there and go in at half time at 10-3 but we probably thought we’d go up in the air, challenge and maybe get a penalty out of it and go in 13-3 ahead possibly.

“But to give away a penalty at that ruck was fairly crucial and then their score at half-time was tough to take, especially when we had a good bit of the momentum in the first half.”

James Ryan, Rob Kearney and Luke McGrath dejected after the game Cullen's men put in a huge effort. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Saracens, to their credit, created a sublime try for Sean Maitland.

“There was very little between the teams,” was tighthead try-scorer Tadhg Furlong’s take on things.

Leinster will also likely have bigger picture regrets when they analyse this game. They had 23 minutes and 33 seconds of possession, over four minutes more than Saracens, but struggled to ask enough demanding questions of that brilliant Sarries defence.

There was a real directness to Leinster’s attack and a surprising lack of the kind of variety that has made them such a success in recent seasons.

Two early short kick efforts from Johnny Sexton and Jordan Larmour on Leinster’s two opening attacks of the game boded well with regards to slowing down Saracens’ linespeed that way, but they were the exception to the rule.

Interestingly, the pitch at St James’ Park was smaller than most rugby pitches and that only added to the sense of Leinster being suffocated.

“Our guys, you can’t fault the bravery but you are playing into the teeth of some pretty big physical men,” said Cullen.

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No one could disagree that Leinster’s players put their bodies on the line. But they may feel they ran into brick walls too often.

“We probably didn’t play the Leinster rugby that got us to the final, which is disappointing,” said number eight Jack Conan.

“Probably our attack, we kind of pride ourselves on our varied attack that’s unpredictable. We dominate the gainline. I don’t think we got the right balance of it today.

Robbie Henshaw dejected after the game Robbie Henshaw watches as Saracens celebrate. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think we were a bit too predictable at times, they had some big physical units out there and they won a lot of the collisions so it was kind of hard to play. It was just one of those days, unfortunately.”

Even in defeat, this Champions Cup final showed much of what is good about Leinster too as they delivered a performance that would have beaten most of the other teams who had been involved in the competition.

James Ryan showed again that he is “an absolute freak,” in Conan’s words, while Scott Fardy was sublime and other players such as Cian Healy were deeply impressive.

They won’t be going anywhere and Conan promised that “this isn’t the end of Leinster’s success in European rugby.

“We’ll regroup and the start of next year we’ll set our eyes on May 11th or 12th, and get back into another European final and get that fifth star,” said Conan.

Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath will be gone for the next European campaign as they move on this summer, following the exits of the likes of Isa Nacewa, Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery out of the province in recent times.

Cullen said he won’t be complaining about the loss of such key squad members, however, as Leinster look to continue building on their strengths. 

It’s not hard to imagine that the province will be back in the mix next season in Europe, potentially even colliding with Saracens again.

“A few seasons ago, we didn’t have a chance against teams like this,” said Cullen. “That was the general public perception or one that certainly a lot of guys were writing about. And I do think that we have a chance against teams like this now. 

Liam Williams celebrates after the game Liam Williams in front of the Saracens support. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“In terms of where we are going forward, we just continue to invest in a lot of young guys. We’re in a different model to what [Saracens] have, so we just need to get on with that and keep investing in some of the strengths we have.

“When you pull up today and you see the sea of support we have, every club team in the world would love to have it. So that’s a real point of difference for us and it’s something we’re very appreciative to have.

“For us as a club, it’s important for us that we keep trying to display characteristics that people want to support and once we have that level of support it’s important because that allows us to keep investing in facilities and the young guys.

“That’s the model, it’s not going to change drastically, we’re not going to suddenly sign five world-class players, it doesn’t work like that, so it is what it is.

“We’re not a million miles away, you could see that in the game today.”

- This article was updated at 9.53pm to add the word ‘few’ to the sub-heading.

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Murray Kinsella

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