Toulouse. Munster. Leicester. Wasps.
Drag a nail over the body of the Heineken Cup’s 19 seasons and few clubs left more indelible an imprint than that quartet. And, yet, all four provide salutary lessons to a Leinster side that, at one point, threatened to eclipse them all.
It is five seasons since Toulouse last earned the title of European champions and Munster’s second crown was claimed back in 2008. Wasps’ pinnacle was reached 12 months earlier and Leicester haven’t hit the heights since 2002.
None have even been to a final in the last four years, though all remain ‘big’ clubs, perennial heavyweights in the competition and outfits that have, by and large, retained their gilded status on the domestic fronts as well.
By the time the first Rugby Champions Cup finals swings around next May, three years will have passed since Leinster swatted Ulster aside in Twickenham to bag a third title and the question is whether they too are past their peak in European terms.
The few years since that last triumph have seen the club lose a once-in-a-generation coach in Joe Schmidt, other backroom staff besides and a host of gilded players such as Brian O’Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen and Jonathan Sexton.
Sexton will, of course, return to Dublin next summer, but it will be to a club that has struggled to attain previous standards in Europe this last two years and one that has developed a costly habit of losing big games in recent times. Clermont, Northampton and Munster have all profited from trips to the Aviva in that time, while the loss to Toulon in last year’s quarter-final was a blow only partially absorbed by a second straight Pro12 title.
“You can’t judge them too harshly because they still won the league last year,” says Denis Hickie, who retired at 31, two years prior to his home province’s first Heineken Cup success under Michael Cheika, “but it is hard to maintain that level over time. They are not operating in a vacuum either.
“They are playing against very good teams who are targeting them as a top-tier European side. Leinster are up there in terms of teams wanting to raise their games against them.
“Leinster have played a certain style in recent years as well and eventually teams get wiser how to break you down. That just means they have to be at their best every week to get the results.”
Which they patently haven’t been.
Rob Kearney admitted earlier this season Leinster only really hit their straps twice the campaign before: away to Northampton in December and in that league decider against Glasgow last May, and the natives are restless.
Head coach Matt O’Connor was always buying a no-win ticket when he took over from Schmidt, but the attacking verve of the side has largely been lost, while it was the defence that gave most cause for concern in the recent loss to Munster.
Grumblings outside the dressing room have been noticed within.
“As much as we’d love everybody to love us and carry us down the street it’s not going to happen,” says captain Jamie Heaslip. “Irish people are quite opinionated and not afraid to show it and that’s a good thing, because you know where you stand.
“In terms of the way we’re playing, I’d be surprised if you guys disagree with me when I say when we have the ball and hold on to our patterns, the shape and the moves that we have that we’re actually causing teams lots of problems.”
Maybe, but not enough. Not at the moment.
Injuries haven’t helped but, with the amount of cash swirling around France and the likes of Saracens flexing their financial muscle in England, the fact is Leinster and the other Irish provinces have less margin for error.
For Leinster, this is a big year and they welcome Wasps to the RDS on Sunday minus Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, and with a patchy run of form stretching back to an opening day defeat to Glasgow.
“Every year is a big year,” says Hickie.
“Once you get to that (top) position you have to do everything you can to stay there – and it was the same for all those other teams you mentioned because, all of a sudden, it is harder to attract players and crowds. Leinster are still doing all that, but you need to keep being successful. They won the domestic league last year but we have seen how big teams start to struggle and other teams come through with more money.
“It’s a constant challenge for a top-tier team to remain a top-tier team and it can be a very quick descent if you don’t stay at that top table, but I think Leinster are doing everything they can to do that.”
Whether that is enough is another thing.
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