For years, the power and impact of Munster’s heroic exploits in Europe haunted Leinster. No matter the magnitude of their performance against a European giant or, better still, a win of significance on any given day, Munster always seemed to go one better and dilute their achievement on the same weekend.
When Munster won two Heineken Cups in 2006 and 2008, accounting for Leinster on their home patch at Lansdowne Road in the 2006 semi-final en route to that opening triumph, something had to change in the eastern province. History shows that after their seismic win in the 2009 semi-final before a world record crowd for a “club” game, made even more noteworthy by the fact that it was played at Croke Park, Leinster have left Munster in their wake.
Right now, with 10 days to go before the two provinces face off in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final, Leinster have bigger fish to fry as they stand on the brink of European rugby history by securing a fifth gold star to adorn the blue jersey.
The transformation in Leinster rugby has been such that clubs travel from far and wide to try and decipher what separates them from the rest. Fundamental to their success is an academy whose greatest challenge each season is to prune the talent available to fill the seven slots in year one of their program from a very long list of potential entrants.
As a result, even a place in the sub academy — where players follow most aspects of the program without the financial reward — is a hard-won stepping stone.
In contrast, finding enough candidates of sufficient quality to fill the equivalent slots in the other provinces proves slightly more challenging. With Leinster it’s more a question of “who can we afford to leave out”.
While several leading clubs from England, France and even further afield have visited Leinster headquarters in UCD in an effort to learn how to replicate their academy structure, you simply can’t manufacture a system to match the player output produced by long-established rugby playing schools that have become mini-academies themselves over the last decade through clever support from the Leinster branch in terms of resources and specialist coaching personnel.
After a long season of action on a number of fronts, Leinster are well set to repeat the domestic and European double they captured last year.
Even more worrying for the chasing pack, when one looks at the age profile of Leo Cullen’s squad, there’s every reason to believe that they will be competing for silverware on both fronts for some time to come.
The matchday squad that beat Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final last month had three 21-year-olds in Jordon Larmour, Caelan Doris, and Hugh O’Sullivan, a pair of 22-year-olds in James Ryan and Max Deegan and three 25-year-olds in Robbie Henshaw, Rory O’Loughlin, and Ed Byrne.
James Lowe, Tadhg Furlong, Luke McGrath, and Jack Conan are still only 26. Gary Ringrose is 24. Omitted due to injury that day were Andrew Porter (23), Ross Byrne (24), and Josh van der Flier (26). When you consider the medals already bagged by the aforementioned, Leinster have a core group of quality players that will drive them onwards and upwards for some time to come.
Their only vulnerability comes from within and the desire of all of their front line players for consistent game time, not just to secure a regular starting slot but to press their claims for international inclusion.
That pressure led to the departure of regular international squad members Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy to Munster and Ulster respectively last May despite both appearing in the matchday squad for the Champions Cup final in Bilbao.
British and Irish Lion Jack McGrath is the latest high-profile player to take a similar path next season when he joins Murphy in Belfast. Munster, Connacht, and Ulster all include players who came through the Leinster academy but were unable to secure a contract with the province.
Inevitably some gems will slip through the system. Tadhg Beirne is the most recent case in point when he took his chance with Scarlets a few years ago with a view towards resurrecting his professional career. Munster and Ireland have been the big winners on that front.
Their final opponents on Saturday have also been pretty successful in generating talent internally, even if their modus operandi is slightly different. In fact it’s lazy in the extreme to label them a club that just relies on a fat chequebook to capture silverware as Toulon did in their glory years between 2013 and 2015 when they captured three Heineken-Champions Cups in a row. Saracens have worked extremely hard at producing players through their academy set-up.
Contrary to popular belief, of the 12 Gallagher Premiership clubs, they are the joint highest along with Sale Sharks in terms of throughput from their academy into their senior squad. In fact, 57.4% — 35 of the current squad of 61 players — have graduated from within.
Remarkably that figure includes all five of their 2017 Lions in Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, and his second row partner George Kruis, along with other regular starters in Alex Goode, Jackson Wrey, and Nick Isiekwe.
Like Leinster, they too work very closely with schools within a catchment area that includes Hertfordshire, Essex, and Kent, partnering with a number of key schools and clubs. It is very noticeable most England underage squads contain a number of promising Saracens players.
Saracens also take a holistic approach with their players, a key part of which is working in close partnership with their commercial sponsors in preparing their players for life after professional rugby. Their close links with South African partners has also enabled them to supplement their work on the ground with an ability to attract the very best Springbok rugby has to offer.
Key amongst those in the recent past was explosive hooker Schalk Britz and former Springbok World Cup winner Schalk Burger who retires at the end of this month.
Head coach Mark McCall has excelled in his ability to attract top-quality stars who fit in seamlessly with the ethos of their dressing room with the acquisition of another 2017 Lion in Welsh international Liam Williams last season proving a masterstroke. Another from that Lions squad, England international Elliot Daly, arrives from Wasps next season.
Like Leinster, they will be challenging for the top honours for some time to come. Unlike the Irish provinces however, there is one major caveat attaching to that. Should the strong financial backing they enjoy, primarily from chief benefactor Nigel Wray (that has enabled them to absorb losses of around £5m annually over the last number of years) disappear anytime soon then who knows what might happen.
Saturday’s final in Newcastle brings together the leading clubs and most talented squads in European rugby. Even the bookies are having trouble separating them. Everywhere you look, special players find someone of equal quality on the opposite side, standing in their immediate path. Sexton and Farrell. Itoje and Ryan. Furlong and Mako Vunipola. Lowe and Williams. The list goes on.
This is the dream final. The one big advantage Leinster carry into Newcastle United’s famous home at St James’ Park is a massive support that will outnumber the Saracens following by a ratio of over four to one. Munster carried a similar edge into the Ricoh Arena in the semi-final but Saracens’ all-round game proved to hot to handle.
Leinster will be better equipped to ensure this one will go right to the wire and perhaps all the way to extra-time.