Shane Horgan was the first. Add in Sean O’Brien and Tadhg Furlong and you have the Holy Trinity that has made it all the way from the Leinster Youths system and onto the exclusive roll call of just 54 players who have played for the province in one of their five European Cup finals to date.
Leinster have been operating a Youths system since the early 2000s and it has produced a string of excellent rugby players. Plenty have gone on to feature for their home province, more again found a home in Belfast, Limerick or Galway. Another cohort has etched out a professional career abroad.
Phil Lawlor has been working at the coalface of the Irish game for almost 30 years. Currently the Domestic Rugby Manager with Leinster, he is one part of a machine working away far from the blinding lights of a Stade Velodrome and which is cranking out a regular supply of professional players into the Irish landscape and beyond.
“We’re quite proud of the fact that we’ve had such a huge number of players through the club system," Lawlor says. "From a rugby point of view Leinster are providing over 40% of the professional rugby players in Ireland and the youth pathway is providing quite a number of them. They’re not your journeyman pros. They are adding huge value to that environment.”
No-one argues with that but the bald truth is that only 5.5% of the players that have played a part in previous deciders in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Twickenham, Bilbao and Newcastle - Leinster’s greatest of days - have been mined from a pathway that doesn’t involve the traditional fee-paying rugby schools.
It’s clearly not enough.
O’Brien was a world-class player, Furlong still is and Horgan was an exceptional wing who scored almost once every three games for Ireland. All three played in World Cups and for the British and Irish Lions but they are the exceptions to the rule for players discovered beyond the grounds of the Schools system.
Leo Cullen spoke about this only last week when stating Leinster are still only “scratching the surface” when it comes to the province’s playing pool. Trevor Hogan, now an elite player development officer with Leinster, says it will take more money and people on the ground to dig deeper. Lawlor goes along with that.
“What we need to do is we need to invest more in that programme," he argues. "We need to be able to give those players more contact hours, to give them better quality experience across all the capacities of player development: technical, tactical, physical, lifestyle, mental. And we need to be able to engage with them in their locality.”
Leinster have between 60-70 employees flitting about the province working on the four key pillars of promotion, participation, performance and high-performance. A player making the epic journey from minis through to academy and senior squad is propelled along those waters by a succession of coaches on and off the training field.
Kids enter the Leinster Youths system at the U15 grade where roughly 150 players are identified across the five regions, namely Midlands, North Midlands, Northeast, Southeast and Metro. Initially it involves one night a week of training and conditioning at a regional centre, an intensive summer programme and the inter-region Shane Horgan Cup.
From there it’s on to the U17 grade with its smaller pool and two nights a week of contact sessions. An open-ended system, players can drop out or drop in at any time. It’s only at the U19 staging post that those still in the Youths programme are integrated with their Schools counterparts and all of them come under the guise of elite development officers.
Whatever way we cut it, there is no escaping the reality that the best talents in the Club game are only entering the Leinster pathway at a time when their Schools counterparts are three years into secondary education and three years embedded into a Junior Cup cycle. That’s some head start.
So how do the Youth graduates stack up when they all finish their Leaving Cert?
“They’re not in a bad place,” said Lawlor. “The difference is contact time. The Schools player has that four or five days a week of rugby activity. And sometimes with a Schools player it is twice a day. It is an environment very conducive to development and maximising your ability.
“That’s not to say that the Club player doesn’t have the same potential and, for us, this is the challenge for our high-performance guys in identifying that potential and working with that potential to bring it to the next level, which is why we have that sub-academy environment.”
The demographics of Leinster’s squads have changed in one way but not in another.
Go back through any of their previous Heineken and Champions Cup final appearances and half the squads were private-schools alumni, another quarter was made up of non-Irish recruits and the rest came either from one of other provinces or they were a Horgan or an O’Brien.
If Tadhg Furlong’s calf doesn’t heal fully, and Ciaran Frawley fails to get the nod to start on the bench against La Rochelle, then Leinster will actually line up here in Marseille tomorrow with no graduate of the Youths stream in their matchday 23 for one of these finals for the very first time. Not ideal.
If this is a sign that they are becoming even more reliant on their traditional talent base then consider as well the fact that they are leaning more and more on just two of those institutions. Blackrock and St Michael’s, between them, are likely to have nine players in this weekend’s squad, compared to seven from the other schools.
There isn’t another club in the world that can mine the talent Leinster does from those sides that contest the province’s Schools Cup every year but you don’t need a business degree to understand that greater diversification would be key and there are over 70 clubs affiliated to the Leinster branch around the 12 counties with plenty more to offer.
“That takes a lot of work and a lot of cooperation from a lot of people,” said Lawlor, taking up the theme, “but if we just leave it in the hands of a certain cohort and say, ‘well, you know what, that’s where we’ll tie ourselves in to’, what happens if that cohort begins to fail?”
Unlikely, obviously, but imagine both pathways producing at full tilt.