Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final heroes had the luxury of front-row seats at Aviva Stadium on Saturday as their squad-mates stepped up to the plate to shatter Munster hearts yet again.
And when the 35-25 victory was complete and the URC quarter-final draw pitted the top seeds with eight-ranked Glasgow Warriors across the road at the RDS on June 4, minds very quickly turned, if they had strayed at all, towards this Saturday’s European final showdown with La Rochelle in Marseille.
The second-string had secured Leinster’s 13th win of the URC regular season with a bonus-point defeat of a strong Munster side desperate to secure a home quarter-final of their own and while its relevance to this Saturday’s Champions Cup decider is limited it does serve to underline just how superior Leo Cullen’s side has been in this league as they chase both a fifth European star and five-in-a-row domestic titles.
It also prompted a pertinent question from the floor during Cullen’s post-match media conference – just how sufficiently tested have Leinster been this year to head into a showdown with Ronan O’Gara’s powerful La Rochelle side?
A year ago, the answer seemed to be not enough as the French Top 14 side bullied Leinster into submission in their semi-final at an empty Stade Marcel-Deflandre. On Saturday night Cullen spoke of how that outcome had “haunted many of us” ever since. “You want to be better off the back of those haunting experiences, shall we say,” the head coach added.
And his answer paid little heed to the URC but instead to Ireland’s Six Nations showdown with France in Paris in February and Leinster’s quarter-final victory at Leicester Tigers earlier this month.
Have Leinster been sufficiently tested ahead of this pivotal trip to Marseille?
“Well time will tell, won’t it?,” Cullen replied.
“A lot of the guys played during the Six Nations, that experience away in France, the carnival-type atmosphere, so it’s making sure we’re braced for that type of atmosphere in the ground and it’s not a shock to us.
“That’s one of the big things. We talked in the past about being away, whether in the pool or knockout stages, that sort of assault on your senses, what that’s like and making sure you’re still thinking clearly and still able to bring presence to the game and dominate the game, because La Rochelle potentially have that kind of atmosphere behind them, plus some of the experienced players they have, top end French internationals plus foreign stars, All Blacks with World Cup-winning experience.
“For our guys, it’s slightly different. They’ve experienced the big stage in the Six Nations away in France this year, so it’s just trying to learn from those experiences. You think back to the start of that game, how Ireland get caught with that quick start and suddenly it’s this very frantic type of game.
"We’ve gone away to Welford Road in the quarter-final game, and against a very, very physical type of team in Leicester Tigers. La Rochelle will be that physical type of team, they wil take us on around the set-piece etc, the pitch in Marseille looks better than the pitch in Welford Road.
“But it’s that type of team mindset. They are very aggressive around the ruck, and that’s probably what we faced down there, so it’s trying to understand the interpretation of referees, etc, and all the different factors that lead into those big games. We’re away from home, I know La Rochelle are too but it’s away from home in France against a French team.
"So it’s learning from the past, whether it’s La Rochelle or for a lot of the Irish guys, that Six Nations game. Some of the calls in that game even, France were very aggressive around the breakdown, so in terms of a template so to speak, they’re the things we need to make sure we’re braced for and prepared mentally and physically for as well.”
Cullen also referenced the O’Gara effect on this La Rochelle team and noted his opposite number’s decision to send an understrength team into a crucial Top 14 game against Stade Francais on Saturday night that was rewarded with a 32-13 home win that keeps hopes alive of a top-six finish with one league round still to play.
“I know Rog has such a strong affiliation with this tournament, he will be desperate (to win it). They took a bit of a gamble this week and it paid off for them, in terms of their selection against Stade Francais. That’s a tough choice over there, that was a brave play by him which came off. It signals the intent piece.
"Two teams who treated the tournament with full on respect from day one this year. You want those teams rewarded to a certain extent and come through. I certainly hope it will be a great game. We obviously want to win and we know they are desperate to win as well.”