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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Blues left to count the cost

Second loss relegates Leinster to also-rans

Leinster coach Leo Cullen is facing a difficult season after Saturday’s loss to Bath in the Champions Cup
Leinster coach Leo Cullen is facing a difficult season after Saturday’s loss to Bath in the Champions Cup
Leinster players (l-r) Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Dominic Ryan following their side’s defeat by Bath

This is the 21st edition of the European Cup. Leinster have never lost their first two matches - until now.

It is another unfortunate, unpalatable record-breaking slight to sit there with the 27-point insult hammered out by Wasps in week one.

Quite simply, there is next to no chance of making progress from the Pool of Death, given the back-to-back assignments against triple-decker champions Toulon in mid-December.

"It's going to be tough from here. That's being realistic," said coach Leo Cullen.

That's an understatement. What else can a coach do only deflect the inevitable as long as there is no mathematical certainty?

It would be a dereliction of duty. While Leinster can breathe, they have to believe or it will turn really ugly, really quickly in Toulon.

Nonetheless, their competitive involvement will probably end at Stade Felix Mayol on December 13th.

The Leinster set-piece was a shambles at the Recreation Ground. The same front row, more or less, that thrived in the 2015 Six Nations and held up strenuously in the World Cup was eaten alive by Bath.

Driven back

The scrum was often driven back and coughed up the ultimate dent to pride in the concession of a penalty try.

For the most part, Jonathan Sexton was working off the scraps from Bath's table. And still.

They took their medicine from that to respond with a superb strike of their own from Luke McGrath's beautifully delayed pass and Josh van der Flier's fine line onto the ball to make it a tantalising 16-all with ten minutes left on the clock.

It came down to Jonathan Sexton's miss from a speculative long-distance penalty right on the edge of his range and George Ford's make from far closer in and from a favourable angle.

Then, the final chance was blown when replacement hooker James Tracy's throw was picked off by Bath lock Stuart Hooper with not even a single Leinster forward in the air in what was a clear breakdown in communication.

"I thought the guys put in a lot of effort out there. I couldn't fault them there at all," Cullen reflected.

"A couple of times, we got ourselves in good positions and probably weren't clinical enough.

"We gave away a lot of penalties and points with the scrum. They are probably the areas that cost us the game.

"After we gave away the penalty try, it would have been easy for us to fold up.

"The guys have a lot of fighting spirit and they came back really strong.

"I thought we were going to push on at that stage, into the last ten minutes."

Unlike the Wasps match, the statistics told a true story of Bath's almost complete domination.

They controlled territory (59%-41%) and possession (59%-41%), the carries made (109-74), the metres made (501-335), line breaks (8-2), defenders beaten (22-20), offloads (11-4), lineouts won (78%-75%) and, most importantly, scrum success (83%-67%).

Where do Leinster go from here? Well, Rob Kearney could be back from a hamstring strain this week. It remains to be seen how badly hurt Hayden Triggs was when replaced on Saturday.

The condensed nature of the season means there is no time to press the pause button. The tests of character are coming thick and fast.

Dust off

"We've got to dust ourselves off again," said Cullen. "We've got another game in the PRO12 on Friday against Ulster.

"I'm sure they'll be coming to Dublin looking for a result."

It is there Leinster's season will be defined. The PRO12 can be the salvation of a club without silverware last season.

"We just need to focus on our League and trying to get consistency in our performance.

"We'll readdress Europe in a couple of weeks time," he added.

"We've only one point from two games, so going down to Toulon is going to be a huge challenge. For sure."

It almost doesn't bear thinking about.

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