When Leinster look back on their domination of European rugby over the last four seasons, they may well pinpoint that incredible Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster in 2009 as their coming of age.
Having displayed incredible guts and resilience to survive by a point against Harlequins in the mud at The Stoop in the infamous Bloodgate match, they faced their destiny against a Munster side that crushed a very good Ospreys side 43-9 in the quarter-final.
But Leinster stood up to be counted that day, recording a 25-6 victory and, arguably, have never looked back.
In their 27 Heineken Cup outings since, Leinster have won 22, drawn two and lost just three games. One of those defeats was against Toulouse in the semi-final in France two years ago, when their shortcomings in the scrum and the unavailability of Jonny Sexton with a broken jaw, proved too big a handicap. Since then they have improved with each season and are now an infinitely better and more balanced side than the one that captured the cup for the first time against Leicester Tigers in Murrayfield three years ago.
Michael Cheika took time to find his feet in the role as head coach but recognised what needed to be done to make Leinster a force in Europe. The return of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings from finishing school with the Leicester Tigers, allied to the signing of Rocky Elsom, gave Leinster the hard edge that was missing up front. The emergence of Sexton as a quality presence at out-half and the maturing of Mike Ross as a hard-nosed, gritty tight-head prop provided the final pieces of the jigsaw.
In the case of the latter two, luck played its part, as one wonders if Sexton would ever have been offered the opportunity to shine if Felipe Contepomi had not been injured in that semi-final against Munster. The fact Sexton grabbed his chance with both hands and in the subsequent final against the Tigers convinced the Leinster hierarchy that they could afford to let Contepomi move on.
But for a serious injury to Stan Wright in September 2010, Ross might never have been given a sustained run in the Leinster side but once he got his foot in the door, he refused to go away. His worth to the Irish set up was highlighted after he departed the scene due to injury against England last March. Despite turning 32 last December, he is still learning and getting better. His contribution outside of the scrum last Saturday was immense. One brilliant bit of handling when popping the ball off to Richardt Strauss from a Leinster breakout in the opening half would have done any of his colleagues behind the scrum proud. It reflects the manner with which Joe Schmidt has challenged and improved the handling skills of all his charges, including the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Rob Kearney.
Schmidt has taken a group of players who had won a Heineken Cup under Cheika and turned them into the complete package. One of his goals was to make them the best passing side in Europe, which he has achieved with stunning consequences. Leinster are redefining the way the game can be played. At a time when everyone is bemoaning lack of space due to massed defences, they are disproving the theory. Their deft offloads and interplays are done with such precision and accuracy that even the best defences struggle.
All their players have an intricate knowledge of their role in broken play, which is far more difficult to coach than the set piece. They understand how to pull and stretch defences and constantly have blindside runners making themselves available for the inside pass, ready to explode into the gap. Most often, this pits the likes of a Kearney or Isa Nacewa running into space against the inside shoulder of a forward. That mismatch generally results in clean line breaks. The key is that the speed of their passing and offloads offer little time for defenders to readjust.
Schmidt has now become hot property and Leinster will do well to hold on to him when his contract expires at the end of next season. With Declan Kidney’s contract up for renewal at the same time, the Cork man may have to live with constant speculation over Schmidt’s intentions.
If he expresses a desire to coach at international level, then the pressure on Ireland and Kidney to perform will become intense. Schmidt may of course decide that he wants to stay with Leinster to see just how far he can take them on their journey and who could blame him?
The one person who should seriously consider making Schmidt part of his coaching set up is Warren Gatland on the assumption he is appointed Lions coach for next year’s tour of Australia. That announcement is a fait accompli but has had to be postponed due to the unfortunate accident which has forced the former Irish coach to remain housebound in New Zealand in recent times. With the quality of backs available for that tour, it would be fascinating to see what Schmidt could achieve with them over a six-week period.
Right now, Schmidt is more concerned with delivering the double that eluded them last season by accounting for the Ospreys in Sunday’s RaboDirect PRO12 final at the RDS. It would cement a brilliant season for their squad and would also help shred the argument from the French and the English for proposed changes to the qualification path for the Heineken Cup that the Irish sides coast through their domestic league in order to prioritise Europe.
Leinster’s achievement in winning three Heineken Cups in four seasons places them ahead of the great Toulouse side in that they are more consistent, more ruthless and even more potent in an attacking sense. I never thought an Irish side would be capable of surpassing Toulouse on that front but Leinster have managed the impossible. With next season’s Heineken Cup final set for the Aviva Stadium, who would bet against them becoming the first side to achieve a magical three in a row?
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