Leo Cullen urges Leinster to ‘bottle up’ pain of Saracens defeats

‘Everyone in the dressingroom is gutted.’ Leinster head coach Leo Cullen said he was disappointed the season had ended in an anti-climax after their Champions Cup defeat to Saracens in Dublin. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Coach frustrated with ‘anti-climax’ to the season while Ulster rue mistakes against Toulouse

Irish interest in the 2019-20 Heineken Champions Cup was duly extinguished in front of a noisy 5,000 fans in the Stade Ernest-Wallon yesterday, where Toulouse’s 36-8 quarter-final win over Ulster ensured both semi-finals will be Anglo-French affairs.

Racing 92 will host Saracens at 2 pm local time (1 pm Irish time) in La Défense Arena next Saturday, before Exeter subsequently host Toulouse at 3.15 pm in Sandy Park following their quarter-final win over Northampton yesterday.

The first of those games will be on terrestrial television, albeit it’s a less appealing watch for Leinster supporters after Saturday’s 25-17 defeat by Saracens at an empty Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The records will show Leinster had their most proficient win-loss campaign, 23-1, yet almost cruelly they will now deem it something of a failure.

“It’s certainly an anti-climax,” said Leo Cullen, whatever about it being cruel. “Everyone in the dressingroom is gutted. They’re gutted because they know there’s more in them. That’s just what we need to focus on. It’s about bottling up the pain of these defeats.”

“We’ve lost to Saracens in a final, now we’ve lost to Saracens in a quarter-final and, yes, we’ve done lots of good things over the course of this season. The only positive of when you get knocked out of a game in the last game of the season, usually you have to wait three or four months before you turn the page but we have a game now in 13 days,” said Cullen in reference to the start of their 2020-21 Guinness Pro14 title defense.

“We’ll turn our attention to that pretty quickly so we’ll do the review. It will be a pretty painful review to go through for all involved, but it’s going to have to be onto the next challenge now and try and accumulate as many points as we can and get ourselves into a situation again where we can back to this big day and hopefully give a better account of ourselves.”

Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan dejected during his side’s Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Toulouse. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

“I’d hate to have to wait a few months for the next game. Obviously we don’t have a semi-final next week but the Guinness Pro14 starts the week after, it’s on to the next challenge. It’s tough.

“It’s important that we understand and remember the pain that we’re feeling at the moment because it’s pretty grim in there. The lads are gutted with themselves because so much work has gone in to get us to this point and it’s a huge effort from the group when you talk about the 53 players used, all those things and the effort from all the staff as well. We just weren’t quite good enough today, unfortunately.”

The taste of defeat will be especially bitter and the inquest tough to take, but Cullen rejected the notion that Leinster’s below-par display was a reprise of the “performance anxiety” which the IRFU’s review identified in Ireland’s World Cup campaign in Japan.

“It’s not something we’ve had a history of,” said Cullen, noting how they started last year’s final against Saracens when going 10-0 ahead.

“Today, it can sometimes be hard to put your finger on it. Off the back of wining the final last week, does it take away a little bit of that edge of us versus the edge that they have because they know it’s their sole focus? So does winning a final lead to a little bit of complacency?”

“In the past we’ve been able to back up some of these big games and we had another gear in us I think. That’s the frustrating thing that we didn’t quite give a full account of ourselves today.”

Meanwhile, mistakes proved costly for Ulster with Toulouse’s 28-point margin of victory coming despite the four-time winners playing patchily.

“When you make mistakes they’re going to punish you,” said Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. “The slightest error and they’re through and they’re going to score, and they showed that. They’re a great team.”

“On the reverse side of things, we’re looking at that, and we know ourselves we didn’t look like a quarter-final [team] today,” said the typically candid McFarland, whose side have lost four of five games since lockdown. “For whatever reason after the break we haven’t been playing very well and it looked like that today and we got punished and we deserved it.”

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