Sean O’Brien was among a handful of former Leinster stars who returned to the team HQ this week to set the scene for the province’s ‘drive for five’ ahead of today’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Benetton.
The flanker, who signed for London Irish earlier this year but is currently injured, was part of a team gathering last Tuesday which set the tone for Leinster’s bid to add a fifth European title to those won in the last 10 years.
Jonathan Sexton wasn’t sure that such a summit between players, staff and former players was necessary given the excitement that comes with the advent of a new European campaign anyway but he described the get-together as “brilliant” all the same.
“There is a lot of experience in the team but there is a lot of young guys and we need to focus on ourselves and the performance. We don’t have time in a week like this to get around to those young lads and (it was) just for them to realise what it is like to play for Leinster in Europe and what it means to the guys that play with us.
“So getting those big days out and what it means to your family and all those close to you, they will never forget as well,” said Sexton who makes his first club appearance today since the World Cup.
“So it is just important that the young guys realise that and I think they know it as well anyway. They are born and bred in Leinster and they know what’s expected.”
Leinster have made no secret of their desire to pull away from Toulouse and become the first club to win this tournament five times. It was something they discussed last season on the way to the final which they lost to Saracens. It will be front and centre in their thoughts again this term. They had their chance to bring up the quintet in Newcastle last May only to let a 10
-point lead slip against a Saracens side that has recently been hit with a 35-point domestic league deduction and a fine of over £5m (€5.83m) for alleged issues with the Premiership salary cap.
Head coach Mark McCall has left out the vast majority of those players who featured in the World Cup as they start their defence of the title, away to Racing 92 in Paris. Leo Cullen opted not to take this as a sign that the English champions are sacrificing Europe for league survival.
It is just two weeks since the likes of Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje played in the World Cup final and Cullen made the valid point that none of Leinster’s Irish brigade featured for the province a fortnight after their return from Japan either.
Even so, it was put to Sexton that any sign of Saracens holding back some of their stars in the course of the four European rounds across this five-week spell could be interpreted as a tacit handing over of their crown.
The Leinster skipper wouldn’t be so sure.
“They could still go and win the (Racing) game. To leave out Itoje, they probably have (Will) Skelton to come back in, (Nick) Isiekwe might come in for George Kruis. So they have such a strong squad that even if they leave those seven internationals out...
“I remember last year they played a game without Owen Farrell and that would be a loss to any team. But Alex Goode played 10 and they played unbelievable. So they’ve got such an incredible team that I actually think they still fancy themselves to go and win in Paris.”
Cullen has mixed and matched his enviable resources for their first continental outing with Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris rewarded for sterling efforts so far this season. Sexton and eight more of the 14 players the club lost to World Cup duties will also feature in the XV against the Italians.
The out-half blew hot and cold in Japan where injury didn’t help. A thumb issue early in pre-season was far from ideal and then a rare and puzzling brush with a maul at a training camp in Portugal left a mark that had clear consequences in Asia.
“I ended up hurting my groin and then off the back of that groin it was niggly at different times, as you saw during the World Cup. It wasn’t ideal, but look, I am in good shape. I’m just excited to get back with the lads and get going into another campaign.
“Every time you come into a European Cup, it feels the same. It hasn’t diminished at all.”