Motivation has been a bit of a buzz word ahead of Leinster’s meeting with Ulster this Saturday. And that’s without the usual cliches that can so easily be farmed on the week of these old provincial rivalries and lobbed into the pot.
The visitors will hardly lack for it given the presence in their ranks of players recruited from down south, the lack of game time others among them were afforded by Ireland in the recent Six Nations, and the thoughts of the pair’s meeting back in 2019.
For a club trying and failing to transfer potential into reward for so many years now, that quarter-final on Lansdowne Road four years ago must, on the one hand, continue to ankle as one that got away and, on the other, act as a beacon of what is within their reach here and now.
The question with Leinster is whether so many of their players can gee themselves up to the required emotional peak so soon after they backboned Ireland’s Grand Slam. Maybe news of Johnny Sexton’s injury issues this week will add another brick to that particular wall.
Sexton is all but done in a Leinster jersey. Due to retire after the World Cup, he is now “likely” to sit out the remainder of the club season with the injury he suffered against England two weekends ago: a cruel endnote for such a key servant.
“Yeah, it’s a big motivation,” said James Ryan.
“And I was obviously gutted that he is ruled out. I’m not sure if it’s the entire season now, I’m sure he’ll try and come back as soon as he can. It’s a huge motivation. To be honest, this week is more about getting our performance right and not worrying too much about it. And that’s what he would want as well.
“But hopefully if we go well that will become more and more of a driver for us because Leinster have had many great players over the last ten, 15, 20 years, players that I grew up watching but he’s at the very top of the list. I think he’s the best ever. It’s another little driver for us, there is plenty there, but he has to come into it some way.”
Sexton being unavailable is nothing new for Leinster. It’s a record that has been played on the loop time and again in recent seasons and the man called in to pick up the tune has, more often than not, been Ross Byrne.
Ryan ticks off all the words you would expect about the next man up at No.10. Seamless. Confidence. Leadership. Byrne likes to drive the week in training as much as Sexton and there is a collective agreement that drive is exactly what they will bring as a group.
Stuart Lancaster has stressed the point that there is no second chance here. Leo Cullen has pointed out that the season could sour all too quickly at this late stage of affairs. Ryan echoed all that as he looked back at the Grand Slam celebrations and ahead to this week.
“If you’re not motivated by this week then you’re probably in the wrong room… It’s a big game and that comes with risks as well. That’s why it was good that we came in last week, and were back in the system and familiarising ourselves with everything.
“But it’s making sure that we just match up that energy and that excitement with a real clarity and understanding in the early part of the week, and then we can build that excitement toward the end of the week.”
The decision to bring the Ireland contingent back into base last Wednesday strikes as being a particularly clever one. Forwards coach Robin McBryde has joked that their heads weren’t exactly on it on their return but it allowed them to reintegrate with time to spare.
The Ulster connection has concentrated minds too.
Thirteen of the 23 that featured that day four years ago are still part of the club’s senior roster and, if the horrendous injury suffered by Dan Leavy is Ryan’s overriding memory of the day, then he hasn’t forgotten the problems Ulster caused in that tight quarter-final.
“I remember it was a very, very close contest and it was a game that could have gone either way really. We were watching some of the clips from it this morning and some of the footage is so loud, and that’s what it’s going to feel like this weekend.
“I just remember the noise, and it felt like a Test match. It felt like an international game. I think those interpros always bring a little bit extra. There are 50,000-plus. How many teams are going to get that for a last 16 game. So the whole occasion is going to be cool.”