Gordon D’Arcy: How Leinster built a self-sustaining ecosystem

Fancy isn’t the first priority in finals.

Run a mental stocktake on deciders across most sports down the years, and the column of stinkers would soon loom over the classics like a skyscraper in a shanty town, and Leinster’s defeat of Leicester Tigers 10 years ago this month was not among the exceptions to that rule.

Jonathan Sexton’s monster drop goal sticks in the mind. So too a barnstorming run down the touchline by Rocky Elsom that proved to be the point at which the momentum pivoted away from the English side and towards the province. But beyond that?

Leinster’s first European title, it was the hours after the victory that intrigue more from this remove. Leo Cullen, captain then and head coach now, wasn’t long craning his neck over the horizon. He even described the win as a “stepping stone” to greater heights.

“Munster won two Heineken Cups,” said Bernard Jackman that same day in Edinburgh. “I think you have to win two Heineken Cups to be considered a great team. A few teams can win it on a once-off basis but it would certainly be great to go and win it again.”

A decade on, and Leinster have been more than true to their word. A record fifth star sits 80 minutes from their grasp as they meet another English giant in Newcastle this Saturday and, scanning the landscape now, this success seems natural, maybe even inevitable.

After all, Leinster have the population and the financial backing. They have the hothouse that is the schools system and now they have the culture and the personnel to make all these advantages count. But Gordon D’Arcy remembers when angst was the daily diet in Dublin.

Though he retired with three Heineken Cup medals, he spent the bones of 10 years before 2009 with a club that was trying to find itself. Or, as Shane Horgan put it, figuring out its DNA.

It took Michael Cheika’s arrival as head coach to help them break that code.

“There wasn’t one silver bullet: ‘there’s that secret all along’. It was incremental gains all along the way,” said D’Arcy. “We went through an awful lot of coaches, there was an awful high turnover in players, but Cheika brought everyone in and brought us together.

“He basically went: ‘what are we trying to do here?’ He forced a maturity on players, on individuals, on the organisation. He began this whole process. We hear Joe Schmidt, Leo, Stuart (Lancaster), Johann (van Graan) talking about the ‘responsibility’ they give players.

“That has to start somewhere.”

That started for Leinster with Cheika holding them to a higher standard. And persuading them to stop looking over the fence at a Munster side that had become Ireland’s and European’s standard bearers and Leinster’s bogey boys.

D’Arcy’s own thoughts on Munster couldn’t help but make him see red. He associated Munster with the time Peter Clohessy spotted him at the base of a ruck, looked him in the eye and stood on him. Or the tries Anthony Foley scored against them on the wing.

Cheika invoked a team- first environment rather than a player-first one and the focus placed on the bigger, continental picture was obvious after the Croke Park semi-final defeat of Munster in ’09 when the Leinster players drifted off home rather than paint the town blue.

“Nobody clapped or cheered,” D’Arcy recalled. “There was a forced lap of honour after we won in Croke Park. It didn’t have to be said — ‘lads this is only half-time, we’ve another game to do’ — trying to create a false sense of urgency.”

That was all Cheika.

Maybe it was the years of failure and scorn. Maybe it was Cheika’s influence. Maybe it was both but there was never any hint of a club or a dressing room sated by that first success at Murrayfield. A collective greed took hold and Joe Schmidt arrived to feed it.

Two more titles, as well as a Challenge Cup, would be accumulated under the Kiwi.

“Cheika had this 180-degree approach to Leinster,” said D’Arcy.

“Then Joe came in and they dovetailed almost perfectly.

“Joe came in and brought that ethos in the club to the next level, that idea of players marshalling each other, driving competition and standards.

Then you had a guy at the front who was picking players on form, then it became this self-sustaining ecosystem in Leinster, then you had an academy driving through new players and probably the best tactical coach in the world.

It’s six years since Schmidt moved across town to the IRFU offices and, while Leinster struggled for a time to match those previous heights under Matt O’Connor and the early days of Cullen’s tenure, there is a sense now that the equilibrium has been restored.

Win this weekend and it won’t be long until thoughts turn to title number six.

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