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'The penny has to drop': Leinster learn some painful pre-season lessons

Leo Cullen was disappointed by his side’s lack of intensity and energy against Newcastle on Friday night.

LEO CULLEN HAS warned that ‘the penny has to drop’ within quarters of the Leinster dressing room if players are to stake a genuine claim for selection before the province’s frontline internationals return to action.

The Leinster head coach has cast his net wide over the pre-season period, presenting some of the province’s young players with a window of opportunity, but an error-strewn and disjointed performance against Newcastle Falcons on Friday left a lot to be desired.

Dave Kearney after the game Dave Kearney leaves the field after Friday's game. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Although Scott Fardy, the Leinster captain for the night, was the sole starter from last May’s Champions Cup final win over Racing 92, the hosts still had four Ireland internationals and new-arrival Joe Tomane in their starting XV, while Luke McGrath, Adam Byrne and James Lowe all came off the bench.

But the European champions were blown away by a rampant Falcons outfit who ran in six tries at Donnybrook to deliver a stark wake-up call for some of Leinster’s squad players just two weeks out from their Pro14 campaign opener against Cardiff Blues.

While nothing is won or lost in August, and the early loss of Will Connors and Ciaran Frawley to injury further compromised the European champions, Cullen was left most disappointed with his side’s lack of intensity and energy, as they slipped to a 42-17 defeat.

A porous defensive display allowed the visitors, who played a high-tempo brand of rugby from start to finish, run riot and in the process make Leinster look very ordinary, leaving Cullen and Stuart Lancaster with plenty of work to do over the next fortnight.

“We’re disappointed with that performance,” Cullen said afterwards. “There’s a few errors we need to patch up for what’s ahead. At this time of year, we’re just trying to build combinations…when you lose a 10 and a seven so early in the game, we were a bit compromised with the players coming in, playing out of position as well.

“There were other parts of the game as well… we’re not really in the business of making excuses, but there’s definitely parts where we can do better. Newcastle showed a little bit more energy around the field, and that’s the most disappointing part of the game.”

The former second-row continued: “There’s a balance for us, at the moment, we’re missing a lot of players, some of the guys who are playing it is a big opportunity for them.

“We’ll go back, review the game, we’re not feeling too sorry for ourselves at this time of year, so we can learn from the mistakes, try and get better and improve the way we prepare for the games.

“As I said the thing that disappointed me most was the lack of energy that we showed, if we delivered the energy and intensity that Newcastle showed….they’re away from home, they traveled on the day of the game, a flight here earlier, and they’re showing more energy than us.”

Having made 10 changes from the side which beat Montauban in France a week ago, there was always going to be an element of rust to Leinster’s showing but early mistakes — Frawley kicked straight into touch, Hugo Keenan knocked on in the air and a litany of basic errors — set the tone for the evening.

Tom Daly tackled by Adam Radwan and James Elliott Tom Daly scored a brace of tries against the Falcons. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Poor execution of skills and no real cutting edge in attack, coupled with Newcastle’s surgical and free-flowing attack, meant Leinster were doing the chasing for much of the game, conceding three tries in either half and only upping their own tempo in the final quarter, as they crossed twice to reduce the deficit slightly.

While McGrath made an impact off the bench in the second half and Tom Daly’s distribution at 10 is encouraging, it would be difficult to pick out a Leinster player who had a good game and it has been quite some time since the eastern province looked as fragile as they did, pre-season friendly or not.

The worry for Cullen and Lancaster is that this group of players also put in poor performances against Ospreys, Benetton and Connacht in the closing stages of last season, and without the experience and quality of the big-game players — many of whom were sitting in the stands on Friday — look vulnerable.

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“Yeah…I know, and that’s the realisation for them — the penny has to drop and say ‘this is our window of opportunity’, it’s a competitive group so they need to know they have to perform on the day if they want to keep getting picked for the big games,” Cullen said.

“We know we’re a little compromised this time of the year, in terms of player availability but we’ll work hard next week as a group together. There will be a few more in-house game scenarios for the players to manage and it’ll be a good training week next week.

“It’s a good time of year to learn some painful lessons when there’s no points at stake. It’s just about making sure we prepare well now for the next two weeks, they’re hugely important for us leading into the Cardiff game because it’s a tough start for us.

“We’ve got Cardiff away, Scarlets away and we’ll try and get as many points as we possibly can to leave ourselves in the best possible shape when we come into Europe.”

As the players involved in Ireland’s summer tour of Australia continue to take the delayed path back to full training, Cullen hopes he’ll have a slightly stronger hand to select from by the time Leinster open their Pro14 title defence at the Cardiff Arms Park on 31 August.

“Yeah, we’ll hopefully get a couple of guys back so we’ll see how they all shape up this week at training and we can make some calls than on how guys are.”

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Ryan Bailey

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