Sean McMahon reporting from Newcastle.
“We’re obviously very gutted,” Leinster head coach Leo Cullen began when asked to reflect on his side’s 20-10 loss to Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup final.
The 41-year-old had just witnessed his side fall to a relentless and powerful Saracens outfit and the sense of disappointment was all too obvious as he gave his thoughts in the post-match press conference.
“We pulled up outside the ground there and you see the sea of blue of support. We’re gutted for all the players, everyone who travels to the game.”
When analysing this defeat, Cullen will no doubt be buoyed by how his side had the newly-crowned European champions under pressure for large periods of the game but equally, there will be a similar level of frustration that they didn’t take advantage of some excellent opportunities to put more points on the board.
“I thought it was a great occasion out there. I thought our guys started the game really well and created lots of opportunities, built that lead. Everyone is going to talk about the period either side of half-time because that’s where Sarries score some points and we give up the advantage that we had built.
“But there are so many different moments in the game. Even with what Johnny [Sexton] is saying, we created loads of opportunities but you just need to make sure you nail the chances. We were up against a very, very good team. You see the size of some of those Saracens guys. They’re a big, big, physical team with lots of quality.”
The physicality which Saracens bring, as Munster found out three weeks ago in Coventry, is incredibly difficult to overcome and Cullen admits that their opponents wore them down.
“I think we know what to expect, but they’re big, big men; very big men. Like, you stand out in the tunnel there and you see the size of Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Will Skelton in particular, and we don’t have access to that many types of players.
“They wore us down for sure. We’ve seen it a lot, where Saracens just get their noses in front, play pressure, pressure, pressure, pin us down, and they just squeeze the life out of teams.
“For us, I thought our guys fronted up unbelievably well, stuck in so many collisions, were dominant in a lot of collisions, particularly early in the game with some of those big men running at them. But it does take its toll for sure.
“I thought the Saracens bench came on and did well. I thought Vincent Koch, in particular, provided a lot of energy considering he was on after 30 minutes. I thought he carried very, very strongly. Their scrum was good as well; they probably just had the upper hand on us in the last 20 minutes whereas probably in the first half I thought we had a little bit of dominance.
“Again, it’s such fine margins in these games, and yeah, Saracens were the better team on the day.”
Of course, Leinster’s season is not over yet and there is still an opportunity to win some silverware.
Their next battle is on Saturday where they welcome rivals Munster to the RDS for the Guinness PRO14 semi-final and the main focus for Cullen will be picking up his players for that challenge after such a gut-wrenching defeat.
“We just need to dust ourselves off now. We’ll talk about so many different areas of the game but we need to just try and move on as quickly as possible because we have a huge game against Munster next Saturday.”