Reggie Corrigan believes Leinster’s current team will break a club record in Italy on Saturday, but he’s warned them that only silverware can secure their place in history.
Corrigan was a fixture in the Leinster team that won 15 games in a row during the 2001/02 season, beating Munster to the inaugural Celtic League title — but they slipped up at quarter-final stage of the Heineken Cup.
They then failed to back up that season’s stunning league performance, with six years passing before the province next wore winners’ medals, while in Europe they continued to fall short, with a seven-year wait for a first European title.
The ex-Ireland prop says Leo Cullen’s side can build on victory in Treviso on Saturday and go through the entire Guinness PRO14 season without losing, but he’s told the current players to do what his group didn’t do — continue to aim higher.
“It’s one of the biggest disappointments of my career, not winning again after that season,” he said.
“It was a big shock — we left a Heineken Cup behind us too, I think. When we lost to Perpignan in the semi-final (2003) we blew it. It was a shit performance, some bad prep. We often said to Matt [Williams] that the final would be in Lansdowne and I think Matt was already in the final and thinking ‘we won’t be beaten in Dublin’. We forgot about Perpignan in the semi...we blew it.”
Regrets are something alien to the current Leinster side in recent times, but Corrigan has warned them not to take anything for granted.
“You have to keep pushing, keep improving,” is what Corrigan would say to the current side if he had their ear. “What you’ve done is incredible...but you’re only a game away from falling from that pedestal and once you start losing, it can be hard to pull it back.
“Leo and others will remember those days and the times we should have gotten silverware, so he may be using that in chats.
“Great teams in the past haven’t won silverware, it’s never guaranteed, so they have to keep improving.”
Cullen and company insist Saturday’s team are not talking about going through the entire season unbeaten, but when Matt Williams was in charge, the province fully embraced the challenge.
After half a dozen wins, over the likes of Llannelli, Ebbw Vale, Bridgend and Pontypridd — some names the current players might not have ever heard of — the squad were told to keep going.
“We knew we were on a run when we were in the middle of it,” Corrigan admits. “It was the first year of the Celtic League — a competition we were gagging for, and it was unbelievably compact, the whole thing was run off before Christmas, with the final in December.
“Matt kept banging it home then that we wanted to ‘win every game’, to really go for it.
“He was putting it front and centre, it’s not like it is now, we were thinking about it and he would tell us we were too good to be beaten.”
Corrigan sees Toulouse as the biggest threat to Leinster’s chance of going all the way in the Champions Cup, but a repeat of 2002’s 43-7 hammering by the French side is unlikely to occur.
That final Pool game slip-up forced Leinster to endure an away quarter-final to Leicester Tigers and though Corrigan’s team mates included names like O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Cullen and Horgan, they were miles off the pace.
“You can get carried away thinking you’re invincible, but then you crash to earth like that,” Corrigan recalled. “We realised we’d a long way to go yet.
“Even though we trained very hard it was not unknown for us to end up in Kiely’s on a Friday night in Donnybrook, after a game.
“But that year was the start of a lot of changes — we’d massages after games, yoga, ice baths...
“Then we saw Leicester up close and while we’d a team of good, skilful players we didn’t match them for physicality. It was not until 2003-04 that we were getting the proper benefit of weights and so on. The England team I played against in 2003 was so different in stature. Just looking at them before kick off, it was mind blowing.”