The target on Leinster’s back has just got bigger. That’s the way it has always been for champions. First up, it’s Munster gunning for a win over the newly crowned European champions that would propel them into a third Guinness Pro 12/14 final in four seasons.
For the rest of Europe, especially the best the French and English leagues have to offer, Leinster is the scalp everyone wants now.
The Champions Cup had barely arrived in the Leinster dressing room in the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao Saturday night when Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton were being quizzed at the press conference as to how the semi-final with their closest Irish rival at the RDS on Saturday would impact on their celebrations.
“It won’t,” was Nacewa’s honest reply. “Success needs to be marked and celebrated.”
How right he is. Players aren’t robots. Leinster run a highly successful ship and winning a Champions Cup is at the pinnacle of every club’s ambition at the start of a season.
Only 20 qualifying clubs are afforded the opportunity to compete. Of those, perhaps six, at a stretch, have real aspirations of going all the way.
Right now the other five need to step up to the plate as the age profile of this Leinster squad suggests they have the capacity to remain at the summit. Regardless of what transpires next weekend, Leinster will be at the business end of big competition for some time to come.
The most startling fact to emerge from their unbeaten European campaign this season is that Leo Cullen used 37 players throughout the course of their nine-game campaign.
Whatever about having to blood players throughout the course of the domestic league programme — where, incredibly, Cullen has played 55 players to date due to the demands of the national team — to have 37 players even capable of playing in the Champions Cup says everything about the depth of the squad.
To have the confidence to give game time in Europe to 37 different players also reflects extremely well on the coaching staff. Firstly it suggests that the continual improvements they are making in training is a true measure of the coaching they are getting.
That, coupled with the fact the management has the confidence to back them with selection to perform at this level, instils even further belief in the group.
Perhaps the biggest single factor that influenced Leinster’s latest march to the summit of European rugby was the decision by Cullen to approach former England head coach Stuart Lancaster and invite him into the coaching mix.
That scenario was borne out of the tragic necessity for Leinster’s excellent defence coach Kurt McQuilkin to return home to New Zealand for personal reasons when his sister took ill.
It would have been easy for a former, high-profile, international coach to baulk at the prospect of working under a young head coach with an unproven track record, as Cullen’s was at that stage. To say thanks, but no thanks.
Lancaster was always recognised in England as an excellent coach of young players as his career in developing underage talent for the RFU had proved.
He was thrust into the head role with the national side in a caretaker capacity initially when former World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson was forced out after a very difficult 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand.
Lancaster proved such an initial hit, he was offered a contract until 2020 but the circumstances of England’s exit from the World Cup tournament they hosted in 2015 forced his exit. English rugby needed a scapegoat and Lancaster was the easy fit.
What Cullen recognised and understood was that the skillset Lancaster possessed in developing good young players fitted perfectly with the Leinster set-up with so many excellent products emerging annually from their academy structure knocking on the door to make it to the next level. Lancaster has proved the perfect conduit to make that happen.
The Leinster model will be very difficult for the top English and French clubs to replicate. It is doubtful if any region in those two countries has the capacity to churn out the quality of young player coming through the Leinster schools system at present, despite the vast difference in numbers playing the game there.
The profile of Leinster’s matchday squad in Bilbao says as much. The defining factor in Toulon’s trio of European successes between 2013 and 2015, along with Saracens back-to-back victories in 2016 and 2017, was money.
With the backing of Mourad Boudjellal’s millions, Toulon were able to go to the market and pick the best in class, the tried and trusted at the top level of the international game.
Carl Hayman, Johnny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Ma’a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen, Juan Martin Fernández Lobbe, and Bryan Habana represent only a handful of the marquee names that has populated their squad in the recent past.
Saracens are similarly resourced — at least they were up to recently — which enabled them to match the best the English game has been producing, with a carefully selected quota of top-quality overseas signings, mostly from South Africa.
Yet the thing that resonates most with Leinster’s latest champion side is the fact that so many in their stable were born and raised within the province and are products of their system. It is unprecedented in this day and age that 18 of Saturday’s matchday 23 are direct products of Leinster’s development programme.
Of the rest, Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin came through similar pathways in Connacht and Munster, leaving only three non-Irish qualified players in Isa Nacewa, Scott Fardy, and Jameson Gibson-Park. That extraordinary level of connection with where you come from is a rarity in professional sport.
Ironically both Toulon and Saracens suffered at the hands of Irish opposition when Munster and Leinster accounted for both at the quarter-finals stage this year.
Whereas Munster still have a distance to travel, the fact their eventual conquerers, Racing 92, came within a whisker of winning the final offers some hope.
The fact that Joey Carbery is supposedly more open to a move to Munster than Ulster to satisfy Joe Schmidt’s desire that he get more game time at out-half would only serve to close the gap a little bit more.
For that potential move to come to fruition, however, one of Munster’s existing No10s would have to be agreeable to making the switch north. We will wait and see what happens there.
The challenge for Leinster now is to keep improving and match the achievement of Toulon and Saracens in retaining their crown and match their own achievement when winning three Heineken Cups between 2009 and 2012.
Last weekend Leinster became the first side from outside the Aviva Premiership and the French Top 14 to win the newly constructed Champions Cup.
Motivation comes in different shapes and sizes but anyone following Leinster’s fortunes in Europe this season got the sense, right from their opening Pool 3 encounter against high-flying Montpellier back at the RDS last October, that second best just wasn’t an option.
Nine games and nine wins later, against the very best that European rugby has to offer in Montpellier, Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, Saracens, Scarlets, and Racing 92, Leinster emerged as worthy champions. In doing so they have done Irish rugby proud.
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