In ensuring no-one around here loses the run of themselves, I’ve been reminding myself of a sage piece of Kerry advice I received not so long ago.
Walk easy when the jug is full.
Just about the only thing that knocked the Le Rochelle players backwards last Sunday was the rawness of the passion from our followers before and after the game. Walking into the ground, there was a powerful, visceral connection with locals desperate to convey the depth of meaning the day’s result had for them.
The pride they felt in the club’s and the town’s first European semi-final even took some seasoned ‘Maritimes’ by surprise. The natives were seriously pumped. This was like something you’d get outside Anfield on a big European Cup night. Afterwards, there was a palpable sense of pride, as there always has been, in how the players had represented them.
It’s very easy to get swept away on that. I got out of dodge. No media. No gladhanding. No talking ourselves up. Actions are more powerful than words all day long. I went home for a bit and slipped back into the club later on for a few beers.
Monday was pre-planned, a nice team-building day, heading out in small pleasure crafts on the water. The sense was of quiet satisfaction.
Leinster are a top European side, but everyone was keenly aware that there is another step to go in Europe this season. Lads here are beginning to appreciate that there are good players all around them and they want to do more than get to a final. So we walk easy for a bit.
If I’m honest, the focus on Saturday’s important Top 14 game in Montpellier only began in earnest Wednesday: I was wiped after Leinster. I was so absorbed in that game. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity as a La Rochelle coach to commit that much time and attention to the opposition in advance of a game. I got engrossed in the prep. And what I was seeing in my analysis wasn’t reflected in what I was reading in the Irish media. So, I was getting a little worried. Was I reading them all wrong?
Everything I read had Leinster winning for any number of reasons, few of which stood up to proper interrogation. I reckoned if we played our game — and in truth we only played half a game — that Leinster would struggle to stop us.
This was a Champions Cup semi-final. It obsessed me not because it was Leinster — though that was a factor, of course — but because it was a moment to drive the project forward, to use the momentum to achieve something. When the Brive Top 14 game was postponed the week before, it cleared the decks for us all to go ‘okay, let’s zone in on this, it’s a European Cup semi-final’.
The rhythm of the Top 14 is relentless, week after week, so that two-week run in to Leinster was something new.
Heretofore, the player workload I had in front of me meant it was hard to give much of an eye to the opposition when we had so many problems to sort out ourselves. That’s the hugely exciting element — up to now we haven’t had an established culture, environment, or performance record. A lot of this is new. But I think it is sustainable. We have good players. And having that bit of time to get our heads up and say ‘right let’s have a real good look at the opposition and see what they are doing’.
When we were with Munster, the temporal rhythms between the quarter and the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup were very consistent and allowed management and players to steadily build the side and the tactics to a crescendo.
That doesn’t happen in France; the weekend off ahead of Leinster was key. The timing was perfect.
Now, of course, we get the reverse ahead of the final, as we go tomorrow to Montpellier, on Tuesday face Brive and next Saturday again we entertain Agen. Only then can we realistically turn our attention to Toulouse at Twickenham the following week.
Sunday's victory means a little more when it is against a province from your own country. And by ‘a province’, I basically mean Leinster. If it wasn’t a referendum on how we were perceived at home in Ireland, that was the perception created in some Irish media. And the conclusion appeared to be that Leinster would blow over La Rochelle.
Irish teams are disciplined and organised and have huge trust in how they play the game. But there are trends to be established if you have a good look at them. When you go through our game plan in as much detail as I am prepared to outline for the moment, there was a big emphasis on stopping Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw.
It isn’t that straightforward but if you stop the two of them, you are on the way to stopping Leinster. Henshaw is having an incredible season, but we were keen not to let him play. We still made some poor decisions in defence that gave them width, but after a while we got to grips with that and with the referee as well.
The sense of shock when Dillyn Leyds failed to catch those two early restarts was more how rare those slips have been this season than handing momentum to Leinster. But the fact remains if you don’t catch the ball five metres from your line, you are under pressure and are probably going to concede points. Twice, we didn’t exit well and it killed us.
You could see for the first 15 minutes, Leinster had done their homework and had been given good pictures of how we contest the breakdown, even though one or two penalties were quickly blown to our frustration. But being dominant with a yellow card was a big fillip, and the Ihaia West drop goal was important, irrespective of how it went over. I’ve seen beautifully struck drop goals go left and right of the posts too.
The pressure of those early exchanges was informative but in terms of our general discipline, we have progressed a lot. What has been hugely beneficial is having Uini Atonio, Pierre Bougarit, Greg Alldritt, and Brice Dulin in France camp and playing test rugby and seeing how much the referee actually matters.
We had highlighted in the lead up to the game the primacy of ball control, and once we did that we looked completely different in the second part of that first half. Leinster’s scramble defence was unbelievable at times and how we didn’t score in the left-hand corner, and when it was transferred across to Leyds and that odd bounce, I will never know.
Managing scenarios is fundamentally important at this level. Curveballs come quickly and you’ve got to deal with them. This is why I mentioned in a previous column about the players taking ownership of their environment and its importance. We don’t mind not having the ball because we have a good team spirit, a strong work ethic and that gives you every chance. That hasn’t been developed in the space of a week.
But typical us, the job was done at 32-16 so why give Ross Byrne the easy try at the death? There will be a proper inquisition into that when the time is right. Why did we do something unacceptable at that late stage? Things like that could come back to bite you in a final.
But all told, the work-rate on Sunday was excellent (if a given). For all their class players, it was instructive to watch the Man City emphasis on work rate against PSG Tuesday night. You have to have that and it’s something you work on day-in, day-out over a season.
It helps, naturally, when your half backs are playing with the confidence of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ihaia West.
The latter has signed a new deal, his self-belief is soaring, and he seems to have found that contentment in himself. His shoulder wasn’t the best but to score 22 points in a European semi-final is a fair achievement. We are very pleased with the output we are getting from our 10s, given they were both doubtful with injuries.
There has been a bit of inaccurate comment about the extent to which Top 14 budgets determine success as if our progress is built off a fat chequebook. Nonsense. When clubs are vetted annually by the LNR for licence there are strict rules on expenditure and salary. Though they are often coupled together, they are not the same thing.
A club’s expenditure goes on everything from logistics, security, hospitality, travel and staff and so on — and within that total figure, there is a salary cap of €11.5m, which is what a club is allowed to spend on players. Going over that guarantees severe sanction for a club. Does anyone in Ireland actually know what Leinster — and by extension the IRFU — spends on player salaries each year? The past 12 months have been about gelling together people from the four corners of the world to go after something they believe in. And how this project we’ve been working to get off the ground has moved into a very exciting phase.
Getting to European finals is something you can bank for the rainy day if you want but when you have momentum, you drive on.
French rugby is in a good place and the leading two sides in the Top 14 are in the final of the Champions Cup. Toulouse have those stars on their shirt but so had Leinster. This is a one-off cup final and playing at Twickenham will enhance the feel of a European decider. It’s an iconic venue where you make memories.
And I’ve one or two there I’d like to replace with new ones.