Leinster head coach Leo Cullen believes a strong start was the key to their impressive 30-19 Champions Cup quarter-final success against defending champions Saracens at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
A momentum-building third-minute try from Grand Slam hero Garry Ringrose helped the hosts to establish an early cushion, and while Owen Farrell and Marcelo Bosch were accurate from tee, Leinster held the psychological edge as they led 13-12 heading into the second half.
“It was nice to start well, because we talked during the week about the start against Saracens,” explained Leo Cullen, speaking about the province’s performance. “They’re a very difficult team to chase the game against, so it was always positive just having our noses in front. Even though we rode our luck a little bit maybe just at half-time (defending a five-metre lineout), but that was a big moment I thought in the game..
“Managing to hold them out, getting that turnover from that second lineout that they had. I thought we started the second half pretty well. Nice try from Dan (Leavy) obviously with that little bit of interplay with James Ryan, and James Lowe did well to power himself over about 10 minutes later. Just created that bit of separation, which made it a little bit more comfortable in the box.”
Nonetheless, a high penalty count against Leinster ensured that a third consecutive European crown remained within Saracens’ grasp prior to those crucial converted scores from Leavy and Lowe. Cullen felt his side were quite ‘passive’ at times during the first half, which was something they addressed in a powerful third quarter showing.
“It was probably more off the back of us being a little bit passive. We just sat off them a little bit, which allowed them to play. They were just eking out yards, and when you start giving up those yards, you’re more likely to concede a penalty off the back of that. It was just be a little bit braver.
“Making sure we got good amount of numbers on our feet, so we can be a little bit more aggressive. I thought for the most part of the second half we were a lot more aggressive. Obviously they got in from that lineout maul, which was disappointing. But for the most part in our defence, we were a lot more aggressive coming off the line together.”
While Leavy was a deserving winner of the man-of-the-match award, the increasingly-impressive James Ryan produced another sterling display alongside Devin Toner in the Leinster second row.
Following an outstanding Six Nations campaign with Ireland, the former St. Michael’s College and Ireland U-20 captain maintained his extraordinary record of never losing a game with the Leinster and Ireland senior teams (19 and counting).
Although he has barely put a foot wrong since his making his provincial and international debuts last year, Cullen believes the best is yet to come from the 21-year-old Dubliner.
“James has been great since he’s come in. He’s been someone that’s been earmarked for quite a while. Such a big, physical specimen, but he’s got a great mindset in terms of looking to improve. Very, very competitive on the field as well.
“I thought he put in a very, very positive performance. He’s an unbelievably young man. Hopefully he’s going to get better and better,” added the Wicklow man.
For Leinster’s semi-final date with the Scarlets in three weeks’ time, another full house is expected to flock to the Aviva Stadium. They are seeking to right two wrongs from their disappointing end to the 2016/17 season, and in particular their GUINNESS PRO12 semi-final loss to the Welshmen at the RDS last May.
Cullen’s men also fell short in the last-four of the Champions Cup to Clermont Auvergne last term, when Cullen acknowledged that their defence was not as tight as it needed to be.
“Defence wins Championships. We got exposed a little bit, when you think back to the Clermont semi-final last year. The start of that game. We got exposed a little bit with probably some defensive lapses in the game against Scarlets, in that (PRO12) semi-final.
“You concede a few tries in each game and you’re suddenly chasing the game – and you’re doing things that’s probably a little bit out of character. It’s important that we’re controlled and that comes to the preparation and I suppose the mental energy in the middle side of the game as well. Just important that we have clear, calm heads in these big games.”