If I had to set a minimum target on the results front, I would go with a return to the final four of the Pro12 and at very least a decent effort to get out of that Euro pool. Does this mean Leo should lose his job if we don’t make that goal? Absolutely not. There are several other factors like the style of rugby we play and the type of team selection decisions we make to consider, but it would certainly be nice to have more than one match in May again.
Harpin On Rugby
“Leo Cullen, Lengthy Contracts & Leinster Culture” - July 2015
So here we are. The season came, the season went, we have had a week to draw breath. I think I did plenty in my writeup of the Pro12 Final to offer Connacht all the adulation and congratulations they richly deserve...now it’s time to get back to the remit of this site and harp on Leinster’s 2015/16 campaign.
I see my task in presenting my opinion as twofold : (1) see how our season compares to the goals I laid out in that post published back around the time Leo Cullen was appointed to the position of head coach, and (2) see how my opinion stacks up against that I’ve seen expressed around d’meeja and t’internet by pundits and fans alike.
First let’s take a month-by-month run through the campaign. Must we? I hear you cry. Yes, we must.
Nacewa, McFadden, Te’o, Reid, Fanning, Marsh, Luke McGrath
Hagan, Dundon, Bent, Denton, McCarthy, McLaughlin, Leavy, Conan.
Bench : Bryan Byrne, Dooley, Burke-Flynn, Molony, Ryan, Boss, Ross Byrne, Ringrose.
That was the matchday squad for our season opener in Edinburgh. Only Ben Te’o from that XV was to start in the final and even then it was in a different position. Now obviously with the World Cup about to start, pretty much every team was in the same boat so trust me, I’m not making any excuses for Leinster, rather I’m pointing out the silliness of the long campaign (the French one still has three weeks left!).
Anyway...after a shaky start at Embra we came back to the familiar surroundings of the RDS where we fought off a steady stream of Rhys Patchell penalties to overpower the Cardiff Blues and get Leo his first senior level victory.
That brace of Pro12 matches was quickly to be forgotten by pretty much everyone as RWC2015 kicked off and hopes were very high for some Irish success.
This month, and perhaps even this season, can be split into two...either side of the 18th. That was the day Argentina did what they did to Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. Before it, Leinster once again had a win at home and a disappointing loss away...this time the defeat came at the hands of the Scarlets who’s season got off to a flyer.
But the World Cup exit was destined to cast a long shadow over this campaign, and even defeating the reigning Pro12 champion Glasgow Warriors at the RDS towards the end of the month wouldn’t be enough to hide it.
As the World Cup trophy headed back to New Zealand, it was up to the provinces to pick themselves up and prepare for Europe. Leinster put together a 3-game win streak in the Pro12 with a try bonus point in Treviso and revenge on the Scarlets. But these days the measure of a decent season for us is our campaign in the Cup formerly known as Heineken, unless you happen to be named Matt O’Connor, of course.
Then along came Wasps. Within that shadow cast by the Argentina loss lies another created by this utterly humiliating defeat in D4. It started with a bouncing ball that had Dave Kearney grasping at thin air but proceeded to become a litany of errors, not all of them forced.
Six days later, we were off to Bath for a different kind of suffering. Mike Ford’s men had but one weapon...a decent tight eight on their own feed. So it didn’t hurt when out of 15 scrums in total, they had 12 put ins! Sadly we were unable to make the right adjustments and despite a late fightback we were two defeats out of two with a double header against the three-time reigning champions to come. The victory over the Ulstermen to round off the month seemed like an afterthought.
We’ll never know of course, but I think we really needed that match against Glasgow to take place when it was meant to. The travelling and quality opposition could have been something of a help to us but instead we had to travel to the Stade Mayol and hope for the best.
In both matches against the reigning champs, we got ourselves into the lead only to be clawed back and hey presto, our worst fears of an 0 and 4 start to the Pool of Death were realised.
The year of 2015 wasn’t to end on the worst of notes, however, as Ian Madigan inspired the boys in blue to an impressive victory at Thomond Park keeping us very much in contention for the upper reaches of the Pro12 table.
After Thomond Park the wins kept on coming with the ever-improving Connacht getting blanked at the RDS, then a rare win at those pesky Ospreys. Even a victory in Europe was to come as we showed Bath up for the overall disappointment they really were this season, and I have to say that was an extremely feel-good occasion at the RDS even if we had no hope of qualifying.
But then came Wasps again. To ship over 80 points to anyone over two matches is just something Leinster should not do, yet there is stands on our record for all eternity. Still...since we were already out of Europe, I wouldn’t have minded that result in the Ricoh Arena so much if we could have dragged ourselves back to get a win in Newport to keep challenging in the Pro12, but we couldn’t even muster a losing bonus point.
Leinster 52-0 Zebre
A “perfect” month for Leinster? Well I certainly didn’t hear anyone saying it, not even me. It was like no amount of successive victories to wipe away the memories of those big defeats that came before...meanwhile, Ireland’s bid for three Six Nations titles in a row was thwarted by reversals in Paris and London.
I included the British & Irish Cup quarterfinal in this month’s roundup because that campaign should never be forgotten...the A side had a pretty easy pool but came up against a determined London Welsh outfit (complete with Olly Barkley on the bench no less) who mauled their way to a thrilling last-gasp victory.
Meanwhile the senior side completed a rare double over the Ospreys before two big away clashes against fellow top four contenders. We lost both despite playing pretty good defence...the problem was that in both matches we failed to muster more than two penalty kicks ourselves.
Yet again, two home wins didn’t exactly get the excitement levels much higher for Leinster fans, even though they put us at the top of the league for the first time in a long time. But we did have a chance to show we were ready for the post season when we travelled to Belfast...sadly the Ulstermen were lying in wait for us and it was to be yet another blowout to add to the ones we were trying and failing to forget.
Which brings us to May. That win over Treviso proved not a thing to anyone. We wanted to see some quality from our boys - we had to know they could play to their full potential, and sure enough they did in that semifinal against Ulster. But not for the first time this season, it was a performance we couldn’t replicate the following week and we all know what happened as ironically our season ended in a similar fashion to the way it started, with defeat in the Scottish capital.
Overall - Won 18 Lost 12
1st in Pro12 regular season
Last in Champions Cup pool (1 win out of 5)
Losing Pro12 finalists
Running this website from week to week not only keeps me up to date on the Leinster team’s progress, it also helps gauge the opinions of fans.
I have been “accused” more than once of wearing “rose-tinted goggles” when I watch Leinster, which I suppose is fair enough. Maybe it’s because I don’t see the point in jumping straight to the doom and gloom, or maybe it’s because I actually try to say what I see rather than make my opinions fit a particular narrative - that’s a debate for another day.
But this particular season for Leinster was one that was always going to divide opinion. After Leo Cullen’s appointment many took to their keyboards and suggested the move was doomed to failure. Doomed, I say! And sure enough as those 12 defeats happened throughout the season, those I dubbed “Leo-NaySayers” were out in force, highlighting that he should never have been given the job in the first place.
Strange how those voices went silent after the 18 victories, however..not all of which were over the Trevisos and Zebres of this world, I might add.
Look....it was a campaign of occasional highs and depressing lows which ended on a low. Like I said earlier, had our 5 defeats in that Euro pool (which produced two of the semifinalists) been all narrow ones, I could make a case, but the Wasps humiliation definitely stings, pun intended.
And when performances and defeats are that disappointing, the buck has to stop somewhere, so yes, we must look at Leo. But not to say “I told you so”. If we’re real fans we can at least show a bit of appreciation for what happened and realise that there must have at least been something positive if we finished top of the league?
This was the season of #CullensCubs. Some may argue that he had “no choice” but to bring up rookie players to the senior team but I’d dispute that. We could have played someone other than Josh van der Flier at 7. We could have played someone other than Garry Ringrose at 13, Yet they not only made the breakthough, they are now actual bona fide starters.
Plus we have Ross Molony, Luke McGrath. to name just two more..if anything I’d say we probably didn’t bring up enough. For example, I thought Dan Leavy was well able to fill van der Flier’s boots yet in the final weeks of the campaign we chose to go another way with our 7 jersey.
But still, if we are to vilify Leo for the negatives we must give credit for the positives and I really don’t think we’d have seen that many players brought through from this squad under previous regimes.
Yet even I have to reach a point where the positive-searching has to end. For the bulk of the season I was finding comfort in our defensive organisation yet that too was starting to crumble as we reached the all-important latter stages. But that is not where I feel our worries lie - provided Kurt McQuilkin stays there’s nothing in our systems that can’t be fixed.
Where we need a revolution of sorts is in what we actually do with the ball ourselves. It would be very easy for me to say “we need to play like Connacht” and indeed many have said that. But I can’t say that, and I don’t want it either.
The thing that made this year’s Pro12 final interesting to the neutral wasn’t just the fact that it was an underdog slaying a three-time European champion (though that’s probably what made it enjoyable to most outside Leinster ha ha). What we saw on the day was a coming together of two approaches at either end of the spectrum that has evolved in the professional era of rugby.
On one side, we had Pat Lam’s Connacht, who were willing to take risks. Everyone attack now because Leinster are is in transition. Have a go running from deep. Give it a kick forward into space maybe you’ll get a decent bounce. To a man the men in green knew this was how they were meant to play.
Then we had Leinster who were hard wired to a playbook. At one stage Luke Fitzgerald caught a clearance over the touchline, and it was in the Connacht half. The quick pass was definitely on to run it back but instead he just held on to the ball so we could set up our lineout and run a powerplay or something similar.
It’s far, far too simplistic to call that method “wrong”. In fact, it’s wrong to call it “wrong” because we have all seen it work. But it doesn’t work all the time. And to the same extent the “have a go” version doesn’t work all the time either...it didn’t work for Connacht when they blew a 19-point lead in Grenoble, and they even lost to last-placed Treviso not too long ago.
My point is...why can’t tactics be like a Formula 1 tyres with different styles for different conditions?
We’ll never know for sure how things are set up under Cullen’s leadership, but I’d be inclined to say he allows his unit coaches a decent amount of, er, “Leo-way” over their own jurisdictions. If so, that makes sense, but only to an extent.
If I had to pick out one constant negative theme from Leinster’s play over this long season it would be an inability to adapt in the latter stages of matches if things weren’t going as planned. I’m trying hard not to use the worn-out cliché “no plan B” but I guess that is in effect what I’m saying.
When it comes to things like individual selections, it’s hard to envisage what kind of squad we’ll have at different stages of next season. Many point out we’ll miss Ben Te’o. I agree. But like I said before the inevitable news came through of his departure, I very much doubt it would have been worth the money required to keep him, especially as Eddie Jones had an England cap to dangle before him as well.
Then we have the injuries - and as a side note I have to ask...just how long is this stop-start policy with Luke Fitzgerald going to continue? He is an absolutely awesome player and showed every bit of it against Ulster...but he’s simply not able to last more than three matches in a row.
But I digress...Leo needs the support of Leinster fans right now, not persistent comparisons to coaches from other provinces and even other sports. He’s the gaffer for the foreseeable future and there’s already a pre-season to get ready for. I want to see him assert himself a lot more - it’s not as though he hasn’t been a part of a winning Leinster outfit before.
We did some of what I was looking for before the season began...we got the extra matches in May, the selections did impress me at times like bringing the youngsters through and keeping the Te’o/Ringrose pairing together for so long, and more often than not our D was pretty much unbreakable. But the Euro thing cannot be ignored, though all going well we’ll have a less stressful pool next time.
The thing is...I don’t believe we’ll get very far if we insist on re-discovering this thing called “the Leinster way” , or trying to copy what’s happening elsewhere, or spending entire matches looking down at a playbook.
If we can work hard on our gameplan yet still keep our heads up and play what’s before us on the day, call my glasses any colour tint you want but I’m not ashamed to say I believe this Leinster team can beat anyone.
So let’s take a step back, gather ourselves, and get on with doing it shall we. Roll on the 2016/17 season. JLP
PS best wishes for the future to all players departing Leinster : Tadhg Beirne, Isaac Boss, Royce Burke-Flynn, Tom Denton, Aaron Dundon, Darragh Fanning, Ian Madigan, Mick McGrath, Kevin McLaughlin, Marty Moore, Colm O'Shea, Tony Ryan & Ben Te'o