Saturday 20 January 2018

Leinster were lucky: Cullen

Captain not fully content with win at Saracens but satisfied by evolution under Schmidt

Leinster club captain Leo Cullen is happy to be back and even happier to see Leinster move into a commanding four-point lead at the head of Pool 2 of the Heineken Cup.

Nonetheless, Cullen was strangely conflicted about an inconsistent team display that ended in a brilliant 25-23 win over Saracens at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, the Premiership club's first loss there in five matches. Oh, the demons which come from being a perfectionist.

Worse again, Luke Fitzgerald's hip injury will have to be assessed in what could be a bad blow to Ireland's November internationals series assault. Their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, could be a doubt for the first of four matches against South Africa on November 6.

While Saracens Director of Rugby Brendan Venter blasted French referee Christophe Berdos for not sending more than one Leinster player, Richardt Strauss, to the bin in the second half, Cullen was more inclined to look into the collective mirror than point fingers.

"It was a funny one. Personally, I managed to get back playing," he said. "But, we were a bit on edge. Our discipline was poor. We gave away penalties until everyone became more conscious.

"Then, the mistakes started to creep into our defence. It was a bit disappointing. Having said that, we are obviously delighted with the win," added the lock-forward, whose unstinting professionalism has been central to spreading the gospel of a winning mentality.

It still rankled: "When we got that 11-point lead we stopped attacking. When you get into that defensive mindset, it is quite hard to shift out of it. We were guilty of stopping playing midway through the second half. We were kind of holding on and it is a dangerous place to be -- in that containment mode.

"To be honest, we got things wrong in the way we played at times. But, we were lucky. We got away with it."

Why did it take the danger of losing the game to a late penalty to improve the team discipline for the length of the excruciating 30 phases of Saracens' final attack?

"I don't know. It is not like we haven't been talking about it. We know they keep the ball for long periods and play with a bit of width," he acknowledged.

"We knew what they wanted to do and what we were doing, as well. Obviously, we were trying to get our hands on the ball. Different referees have different interpretations. I suppose that is half of it."

The other half seems to be that Leinster requires a life or death moment to concentrate their minds. When they had to stay on the right side of Berdos, they were able to apply themselves in the right way.

The defensive structures and systems are only as strong as the trust in the players either side of one another and the consecutive defeats of Munster and Racing Metro have done wonders for morale and belief -- add Saracens to that elite list.

The influence of Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt is beginning to come to the surface. Leinster are moving away from the Australian-patented tendency to strike from first phase towards multi-dimensional, fluid movements based on offloading at close-quarters on a direct route and attacking space further out.

"I think Joe has brought a hell of a lot of new ideas to us as a team," stated Cullen. "We are evolving from where we were over the last few seasons where we had the same coach (Michael Cheika) for five years.

"It definitely provides a fresh impetus and Joe is a real rugby guy. He is a mastermind of ideas on developing the players' skill levels in order to keep the ball in play as much as we can."

The excitement of Leinster's play of late is tempered with 'a doing what it takes to win' attitude from Cullen, who learned all about access to trophies at Leicester Tigers.

"It is always good to evolve your game. It is the nature of the season here. You have to adapt to the conditions. It was near perfect out there. We know that is not always going to be the case for the season," countered Cullen.

It could be a different kettle of fish when Leinster go back-to-back against the French champions Clermont-Auvergne, away at Stade Marcel Michelin on Sunday, December 12, and back in Dublin at the Aviva Stadium six days later.

"I know Clermont inside out and I know this Pool is far from over," stressed former Clermont backs coach Schmidt. "We will park the Heineken Cup until December and then hope we can get another win."

In the meantime, there could be an entirely changed scenario from the wonder of Wembley for Leinster's next outing, away in the Magners League next Saturday against Connacht at the notoriously inclement Sportsground, where they will work at improving their poor eighth place in the table.

That is for another day.

For the moment, Schmidt hit the nail on the head when he cited Leinster's "class with the ball" against Racing Metro and "character without the ball" against Saracens in building a handy lead after two rounds in what is a devilishly difficult Pool.

"You can't have one without the other if you want to be successful," he added. This is no slow Joe.

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