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'The taste of success is nice': Cullen already planning for Leinster to be better next year

The Leinster head coach was asked how do you better a double-winning season? ‘Do the double double,’ he smiled.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

EVEN BY LEINSTER’S sky-high standards, their big-game performances got progressively better as the season advanced, with Leo Cullen’s side having to dig deep, both mentally and physically, to produce week-on-week and deliver a famous double.

Leinster players celebrate with the PRO14 and Champions Cup trophies Moments to savour: the Leinster squad celebrate their Pro14 win on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The eastern province worked tirelessly to grind out a narrow and attritional Champions Cup win over Racing 92 and then followed that up with a win-at-all-costs result against Munster in the Pro14 semi-final last week.

Here, they cut loose again and conjured some of the expansive and ruthless brand of rugby we’ve come to expect from Leinster this season, pummeling Scarlets and bullying the Welsh region into submission while scoring five tries, including standout efforts from James Lowe, Jordan Larmour and Jack Conan.

This was Leinster at their brilliant best as they executed the basics to perfection and used a flawless set-piece platform to launch a direct running game but also punish Scarlets out wide as they varied the angle of attack regularly.

Johnny Sexton, as he always is, was key to it all and operating behind a dominant pack, the out-half was masterful in the way he dictated proceedings and put Scarlets, and Steff Evans in particular, under serious aerial pressure.

Leinster’s ferocious ball carriers — the likes of James Ryan, Jack Conan and Tadhg Furlong — punched holes in the Scarlets defence and after completely dominating possession and territory, pulled clear with three quick tries either side of the break.

It is that ability to strike at key moments — or in the championship minutes — which is the hallmark of great sides, and just like Ireland did regularly during the Grand Slam-winning campaign, Leinster have done the same in recent weeks.

For Cullen and his squad of 55 players, it is a remarkable feat to become the first side to complete a European and Pro14 double, something the province’s great team of previous years were unable to achieve.

“The last couple of weeks have been a mental and physical test for all of us, you know, players and staff, trying to turn it around,” Cullen said afterwards.

“It was a huge challenge last week against Munster in the RDS and dealing with the celebration.

“After overcoming that, because there was a lot of emotion went into that performance last week, so to try and get our feet back on the ground this week was a challenge. But credit to the players, they’re the ones who have produced the deeds on the field and I thought they were exceptional, they really were.

“Some of the play in the first half, it was pretty attritional but we knew we needed to be direct in how we play against Scarlets because if we go too wide or you’re a little bit too loose you come unstuck because they’ve so many threats with the ball and so many players in the front line.

“Credit to the players, I thought they really fronted up physically in the first half and took some good opportunities when they came at the start of the second half. Thankfully a little bit easier watching than the last two weeks, when there was a combined winning margin of four points.”

As was expected, Scarlets brought greater intensity to their game in the early exchanges but their aggressive line speed saw them cough up a number of offside penalties, and man-of-the-match Sexton duly got Leinster up and running.

Luke McGrath and head coach Leo Cullen celebrates Cullen celebrates with Luke McGrath and Dan Leavy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Even allowing for the loss of Isa Nacewa after just 18 minutes, Leinster barely flinched and after Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny had exchanged first-half penalties, the province upped the ante and scored twice before the break through Devin Toner and Jame Lowe.

Lowe’s score, in particular, came at a key juncture in the game after Scarlets had hit back through Johnny Mcnicholl at the other end, with Leinster instead taking a 10-point advantage in at the break.

“It was massive,” Cullen agreed. “When Scarlets had possession and they scored their try we looked a bit vulnerable defensively. You know, sitting off a little bit, we were soaking metres and eventually, it leads to them scoring.

“So to come back down the other end of the field and there was a sequence of a couple of penalties there and to go to the corner, the boys were very clinical there in taking their opportunity when it came.

“A huge moment in the game, scoring on half-time creates that bit of separation, Johnny kicks the conversion from the sideline, which again is just another mental trigger, a positive for us, a negative for them.”

And then Leinster showed their ruthlessness by killing off Scarlets through Sean Cronin and then Jordan Larmour’s latest virtuoso score, the 20-year-old producing a stunning one-handed pick up after chasing his own kick into the Scarlets 22.

It was an exceptional piece of skill to seal victory and at no point during the evening did the double look in doubt, even though Scarlets hit back with three late tries in between Leinster’s fifth of the game, finished by Conan and created by Joey Carbery.

The scenes at full-time were a brilliant end to a memorable season for Irish rugby as Leinster bid farewell to Nacewa in fitting fashion, while the likes of Larmour, Carbery, Ryan and Dan Leavy completed an incredible year with further silverware in their back pockets.

Leinster will enjoy the celebrations having completed their greatest-ever season in emphatic style, but already Cullen is looking ahead to next year when the province will be looking to defend their two crowns.

“It’s such a hungry group,” Cullen added. “The taste of success is nice and you can see the players in the dressing room at the moment — I’m trying to avoid it.

Jonathan Sexton and Scott Fardy celebrates Johnny Sexton and Scott Fardy celebrate at the Aviva Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s amazing just to be able to work so hard as a group together, you share the ups and downs and it’s not always straightforward at all. There’s going to be other players that are going to come through next year. It’s seeing the team progress and get better and better and we’ll just try and get better again.

“I was watching last night Montpellier against Lyon in the semi-final of the Top 14 and certainly the competition looks like it’s going to get better. There’s plenty of resources going thrown at certain teams around Europe and even looking at a bit of Saracens today as well, they look strong as well, a couple of key guys coming back from injury for them.

“Yeah, everybody’s going to get better and come back stronger and for us we need to focus on getting better but that’s a different day’s work I think.”

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Ryan Bailey

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