Heartbreak for Leinster is knowing they blew perfect five star opportunity
"It's a tough one to take but it's not my first dark day in a Leinster jersey."
Johnny Sexton and Leinster are delegating the captain's regular duties so we got to hear from a crestfallen Garry Ringrose at the Aviva Stadium, on Saturday, as night set in.
While Sexton gathered the troops for a team-talk out on the pitch, after their 25-17 loss to Saracens, and did the TV duties, it was left to his vice captain Ringrose to face the press and sum up a poor end to an otherwise excellent season.
It felt strange to be grilling Ringrose about where it all went wrong, especially after Leinster's 25-game winning streak had just been ended, but these are the levels the Guinness PRO14 champions are operating at. Their primary goal, heading into the season, was to get that fifth star to go above their crest.
It was always tough reward, getting Saracens as the eighth seed, but Leinster went into their home quarter final in rude health. This one game has been Saracens' focus for eight months but they had lost a lot of quality from their squad during the pandemic-enforced break in the season.
Any team that can boast Vunipolas Mako and Billy, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly and Alex Goode will be immensely tough to beat, but the five-game suspension landed upon Owen Farrell seemed to be the deciding factor as most experts sided with Leinster. That is not to say no-one gave Sarries a chance - despite what their players claim - but whatever gets you through the night.
Leinster's path to the PRO14 title had been more of a procession than anything and they had been scrappy rather than sure-footed in beating Munster and Ulster on their way to their third successive league success.
From the opening play of their Champions Cup quarter final, the signs were bad. Andrew Porter and Devin Toner got in a muddle, under Goode's kick-off, and Jack Conan fumbled when trying to mop up. Look closely and you will see James Lowe tentatively approaching too. Three Leinster men [Porter was the lifter] and no-one putting his name on the ball.
From the resulting scrum, Leinster's pack was already under huge pressure but Richard Wigglesworth saw an early opportunity to run Brad Barritt at Johnny Sexton. The big centre crashed forward and took Sexton and Luke McGrath on a ride all the way back to their five-metre line.
Sarries went through a few phases before Porter was pinged for not rolling away after tackling Itoje. Goode popped over a simple penalty and it was 3-0.
Yet, while both Munster and Ulster scored early against Leinster in the semi and final, Saracens were only getting started. After 11 minutes they were 9-3 up and you knew already that this was two levels up from anything Leo Cullen's men had faced since rugby restarted in August.
The entire first half was a catastrophe for Leinster and it was hard to think of a player in blue, Hugo Keenan aside, that had performed beyond, or even close to, their usual levels. McGrath put his backline in trouble, inside their 22, with a horrible scoop pass then fumbled inside the Sarries 22 and threw a pass that Itoje intercepted. Sexton kicked one restart out on the full and put his team into more scrummaging trouble. The Leinster pack was eaten alive.
That Leinster almost pulled it out of the fire in the second half, despite their scrum still getting beasted, is a tremendous credit to them. A credit, too, to their bench as players like Ryan Baird (pictured below), Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park and Rory O'Loughlin all made telling contributions.
They got to within a score of the European champions but could not summon that final drive. Saracens came tearing back and Leinster started taking risks even though there were still 10 minutes to go. They started running the ball from inside their 22, and half, and were getting bounced back.
Asked, after the game, how frustrating it was to lose to Saracens for the second time in 16 months [or two games], Ringrose lingered over that word, frustrating, before continuing:
"It's hard to articulate exactly. It's heartbreaking as well... you know what I mean? Because I know the effort the lads put in, through lockdown and in the lead-up to this game. So, I'd never question that for one second. The effort and intent and desire and hunger, and all those words, that's there. It's just on the day, we were a couple of percentages off against a team like Saracens, they'll take full advantage of that, like they did.
"It's heartbreaking because I'm aware of the effort that goes in, day-in, day-out, the supporters and what it means to them, and what they mean to us, our friends and family back home, and what they mean to us. So, it's always disappointing letting them down and not giving them moments to celebrate."
Sitting up in the stands, I was struck by the thought of how much Leinster missed Scott Fardy, on the day. How Tadhg Furlong is that clear step up from the steady Porter. How Devin Toner's time is running out, and how Jordan Larmour is better suited on the wing.
I also thought of how much differently Leinster's European journey may have turned out, in 2019 ad 2020, had they been able to convince Joey Carbery his place was with them. At 10, 12 or 15, Carbery could have changed Leinster's attacking options against Europe's top sides.
Ringrose and his teammates were heartbroken because they knew they had allowed a golden, five-star opportunity slip through their fingers.
Their only consolations are 2020/21 starting in two weeks' time and the fact that Saracens will not be in Europe next season.