Healy: Knockout stage a whole new ball game

Cian Healy has warned that the momentum built up by Leinster’s unbeaten run through the Champions Cup stages will count for nothing when they embrace the challenge of reigning champions Saracens in Dublin this Sunday.

Healy: Knockout stage a whole new ball game

Leo Cullen’s side was exceptional in coming through Pool 3 with six wins from six games given they were bivouacked with English champions Exeter Chiefs, French giants Montpellier and a dangerous Glasgow Warriors.

But then 18 of the province’s players were diverted into the green of Ireland at one point or another during the Six Nations and the fact is that most of those will be donning the blue again for the first time in over two months this weekend.

“You just start at zero,” Healy explained ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final in Ballsbridge. “This is different, this is knockout rugby ... We have to start like we are at the bottom, slog away and get as structurally sound as we can and [be] as game prepped as we can.” Leinster don’t have to look far for proof of all this.

Sarries were the last side to emerge from the pools with a 100% success rate and, though they won the subsequent quarter-final at home to Northampton Saints 24 months ago, they made very heavy work of it against an understrength opponent.

It’s a dangerous time.

And the similarities between them then and Leinster now stretch further given a number of Mark McCall’s players were returning to club duties at the time on the back of a victorious Six Nations campaign with their country.

Healy, for one, has returned from Ireland’s Grand Slam success with intent.

The celebrations in Twickenham a fortnight ago were followed for him by a family wedding, but he was happy to leave the half-life of hotel living for the comforts of home and he has found it easy to immerse himself into the prep for this one.

“Very, mindset and all is bang on for it.” Healy has won seven trophies with Leinster, including three Heineken Cups, but it is six seasons since the third of those was etched into his honours list. Watching Toulon and this week’s opposition carve Europe up between them since 2012 hasn’t been easy.

“It’s pretty brutal,” Healy admitted this week. “It makes you want to get back to it again. It does create that burn, but you can’t create that burn in two weeks. You have to create that burn throughout the whole squad.

“Everyone, not just you, has to be on that level. We have a squad now who, only a handful of lads have a couple of cups, and everyone else has gotten into a bit of a winning mentality. They’re saying, ‘the next step for us now is to go get a cup’. It’s a good place to be in.” Ireland proved that it was possible to win big with youngsters and Healy has alluded to how the likes of James Ryan – still to lose a professional game for club or country – would bring a winning mentality and a level of expectancy to proceedings on the back of it.

Ryan wasn’t among the seven Grand Slammers to feature in Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 loss to Ospreys last week, but then Saracens looked rusty themselves that same day when overcoming Harlequins in the Premiership.

Both sides will feature a fistful of players who featured in Twickenham when England met Ireland, but this is not a like-for-like affair with both sides possessing a greater variety in attack with less reliance on one-out runners.

There were a few laughs in the Leinster dressing-room when the draw pitted them against such stellar opposition, but levity will be in short supply in the Aviva Stadium for what promises to be a heavyweight event in more ways than one.

Healy is fine with that. He welcomes the stress of knockout rugby. He revels in the knowledge that it is win or bust. It is how he approached the Six Nations from day one. The more pressure, the more fun he gets from it.

“You smile after it,” said Healy. “That’s the moment that you play for: for those 40 minutes or an hour in the changing rooms after, having the craic. With this, okay, you [might win] but it’s not done.

“So, you’re not on the beers in the changing room, you’re just enjoying yourself and then you move onto the next one. Come, hopefully, Bilbao we’ll get a few beers in the changing room then.”

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