'We need to see if we have learned those lessons, so it's a huge week for us'

The painful memories of two semi-final defeats last year are driving Leinster on towards Scarlets this weekend.

Defeat to Benetton on Saturday was hardly ideal preparation for a Champions Cup semi-final.
Defeat to Benetton on Saturday was hardly ideal preparation for a Champions Cup semi-final.
Image: Seb Daly

FOR ALL THE good days — and there have been many — this season, Leinster are, after all, only back to where they were this time last year, and Saturday’s defeat to Benetton, as isolated as it was, is a timely reminder of how all the hard work can unravel without prior warning.

The painful learnings of last season, when Leinster’s two-pronged trophy bid came crashing down with semi-final defeats to Clermont and then Scarlets, has focused minds and fuelled an undeviating determination to right the wrongs this time around.

A faultless pool campaign, followed by the ruthless and impressive dispatch of defending champions Saracens in the quarter-finals, has installed Leo Cullen’s side as the favourites, as the province chase a fourth European crown and first since 2012.

As far as Saturday’s Pro14 defeat to Benetton is concerned, it would be ill-considered to excuse the performance because it should not be fatal in the context of Leinster’s season, but it will have served as a wake-up call heading into a seismic week for the club.

The Italians were fully deserving of a historic victory as they showed grit, determination and ambition to boost their Champions Cup playoff hopes with a stunning raid of the RDS, further underlining the huge strides they’ve made under Kiwi Kieran Crowley.

Leinster were horribly disjointed throughout and while taking a 12-5 lead into the break after tries from Richardt Strauss and Barry Daly, lost all momentum and were never able to wrestle it back as a series of basic errors undermined their efforts.

Joey Carbery didn’t receive the service he craved on his first start of the season at out-half and thus struggled to stamp his authority on proceedings, with Cullen describing his performance as ‘mixed’ afterwards, while many of the fringe players played themselves out of contention for this weekend.

“We’re going to have to move on pretty quickly because we’ve a huge game on Saturday at the Aviva,” Cullen said.

Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery Larmour and Carbery will hope to be involved this weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That’s not at the level for us, I didn’t think we were at the level where we needed to be [against Benetton].

“We were talking beforehand, we’d always ask what we think the mood is like and we felt the guys had prepped pretty well this week, but for whatever reason..

“We did a lot of good things in the first half considering the wind was a lot stronger in the first half as well. Just how we managed the start of the second half was poor and then we get ourselves in trouble and can’t get ourselves out of it.

“We know Treviso are a good team and if they’re in the game they’re going to be fighting for everything. We’ve seen that a number of times from them this season, they were fully deserving of their win the way they went about it in the second half.

“It’s a pretty painful lesson for us, the dressing room is pretty quiet in there as you can imagine.”

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The result, as morale-sapping as it may have been, is not hugely damaging for Leinster, who are still top of Conference B and need just a single point from their final game — away to Connacht in a fortnight — to secure a home semi-final.

All the focus is now on Europe and Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets, who were, of course, the last team to beat Leinster in Dublin before Benetton on Saturday.

Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Scott Fardy, Garry Ringrose and James Ryan will all come back in after having the last two weeks off, while the likes of Dan Leavy, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner and Tadhg Furlong should all start the week refreshed.

“For us, it’s just about making sure we recover well and get ourselves ready for what is a hugely exciting game to be involved in,” Cullen continued.

“We want to be involved in European semi-finals, there were painful lessons in the semi-finals for us last year. We lost one [against Scarlets] here at home, the last time we lost at home, so again that’s a painful reminder — as timely as it is.

Johnny Sexton dejected after the game The painful memories of last year's defeat to Scarlets are driving Leinster on. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“The semi-final as well when we lost against Clermont in France…we’re back at this stage, the players have worked incredibly hard if you think back to this time last year where it was a real feeling of almost getting there but it wasn’t good enough.

“We need to see if we have learned those lessons, so it’s a huge week for us.”

But what gives Cullen confidence his players have learned from last year?

He explains: “They’ve been through it now, for us it’s about making sure we prepare as well as we can now. We’re very clear about the plan in our minds going into the game. We know what potentially gets us into trouble against the Scarlets, we know on the flip side, if we get certain things right, like we did against Saracens, we can produce good moments and things in games, it’s about trying to focus on what makes this game tick.

“It’s in the back of their minds [the Pro12 defeat to Scarlets], it’s quite a long time ago now. I’ve looked back at that footage and there’s a good few different characters. I think the mix of the teams is slightly different. I think Scarlets are a better team now so I hope we’ll be better now than we were last year as well.

“That’s what we’ve tried to focus on, getting better and putting ourselves in a position where we’ve ensured we’re at home for a semi-final in Europe, so the crowd, the support we get will be huge. It was fantastic in the Saracens game and hopefully it’s the same this week.

“It’s a huge week for the club.”

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