‘You don’t carry it around with you all week which I think is a good rule to have in here’

IT WAS A week during which Leinster were forced to quickly dust themselves down.

The disappointment of La Rochelle was at least replaced by jubilation in the case of four players who were called up to Warren Gatland’s Lions squad just days after falling to the coming French force at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre. For others, the pain of defeat was likely compounded by their missing out on Gatland’s 37-man touring party for South Africa.

But for Leo Cullen’s entire squad, whether or not they harboured Lions aspirations as individuals, the focus had to switch from a few days of madness to the job at hand on Saturday: the visit of Connacht, a task to which Leinster eventually emphatically warmed.

“The scar” from a defeat like that to La Rochelle is one that lasts, says back row Josh Murphy, but only in the sense that a scar often speaks to a lesson learned the hard way. “To use it in the correct manner” is the most important thing.

“When you’re playing the game or you’re in the squad for the week, you’re probably your own biggest critic,” Murphy says of Leinster’s European exit. “Whatever about what people are saying outside, people in the building here are just as disappointed that we’ve lost.

“Absolutely, we talk about it, but the best thing I think we do is we go through it and then we move on. You don’t carry it around with you all week which I think is a good rule to have in here. So, we move on and put it into the next game: what our improvements are going to be.”

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Leinster’s Josh Murphy. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“A couple of days afterwards, it’s still very much raw for a lot of people,” adds wing Dave Kearney. “Y’know, biggest game of the season and, obviously, losing is a big deal. We reviewed the game, took our learnings from it. But the beauty of rugby and playing games every week is that you can’t take too much time to dwell; you’ve got to shift your focus to what you have the following week. And thankfully, we had the game against Connacht to focus on.

“A great win,” Kearney says of Leinster’s eventual destruction of the western province. “Slow start obviously, I think we were still all probably on the bus. But we had a chat under the posts and turned things around; just played our game, played some good stuff, and it was a pleasing result in the end — especially after a bad start. We put a foot in the right direction and got over things as quickly as possible.”

As for what was discussed under the sticks in a first quarter which saw Leinster trail by three scores, Kearney stresses that it was “just a couple of things.”

“The biggest thing at that time of the game”, he adds, “was that our discipline was really poor. We kept giving away penalties and we just kept giving the ball to them, really. Their attack was good for the first 15 minutes and they played at us and they kept in the game that way. But I’m pretty sure if you look at the stats from the game, Connacht had a lot of possession but it’s that clinical edge, too. I think we know what when we all do our jobs and we have ball in hand, we’ll be clinical and score.

“But like I said, the discipline thing was probably a switch and our defence, for sure, got better, too, after that; there was definitely far more aggression in there.”

Dave Kearney taking on two Connacht defenders. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Commending Leinster’s players’ ability to respond proactively after the digging a hole from themselves early, and particularly at a time when less sure heads would doubtless have dropped, backs coach Felipe Contempomi says he and the rest of Leinster’s staff “have the confidence in the players and how they’re growing together, but we keep on working and talking like that throughout meetings and in training.

“One thing that we’re very pleased about is how they manage after a bad start — to put it lightly. They kept totally to the script of how we planned the game; they went out and did it,” adds the Argentinian.

“I think they’re a very experienced squad now and you have players there who have been through a lot of those situations. That helps, definitely, in those situations: having players who can bring some calmness and say, ‘Come on, boys, let’s get it together and let’s do our job.’”

Felipe Contepomi during Leinster’s 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When asked what the difference is — if there is one — between losing a European semi-final as a player and as a coach, Contepomi smiles: “15 years.”

He continues: “It’s not that different. Player or coach, it’s about Leinster. At the end of the day, you’re losing with Leinster in a semi-final in ’06 and now, losing with Leinster in a semi-final in 2021. It still hurts but it’s how you approach it: what I’ve learned in the last 15 years, I’d like to think it made me a more mature person and I could get the learnings out of it. But I think it hurts. It hurts because it’s not about myself or you — it’s about the team losing. It’s something we’ve been chasing in Leinster, the fifth star, so yeah, it hurts. The feeling is pretty much the same. It’s the way you approach it, I would say, is different.”

Contepomi describes his opinion on Gatland’s Lions selection “worthless” but adds of some of the Leinster players who missed out: “I feel sorry for some of them but it’s life and I think, from what I’ve seen, the way most of our players who had an expectation of being selected; the ones who were left out, they approach it really well.

“They’re working harder, even, now, and you never know where you’ll end up in a month’s time. Between now and the plane that takes them to South Africa, many things can happen.”

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