Ulster making these knockout stages on the back of just one pool win tells us everything we need to know about the wilful damage done to this once great tournament by the very people charged with nurturing it.
What was once the premier club tournament in the world game, a mini-marathon of pitfalls and thrills, has been replaced by a format beset by false starts but Saturday’s contest at the Aviva is one of eight starting points for the hectic sprint finish.
It promises to be lively.
For Leinster, this is the second year in a row where they will begin the knockout stages with a local derby, although it’s just the one meeting this time rather than the two legs it took to finish their business with Connacht in 2022.
They seemed to be set fair at the end of that second game at HQ 12 months ago but then that’s not new. Leo Cullen’s side has looked the part every year since their last title in 2018, until they haven’t, and it remains to be seen if they are much better suited to the task now.
“The tournament's never been harder to win in many ways,” says Cullen. “That would be my opinion. That's what makes it incredibly special. Are we still as hungry as ever? Yes. The memory of how last season ended is still very fresh for us, we want to get back to that stage.”
Leinster led La Rochelle in last May’s Marseille decider until the game all but spilled into the red but you couldn’t say Ronan O’Gara’s side snatched it, or that Leinster were robbed on the basis of the 80 minutes played that afternoon.
Can they go that one step further this time? There will be no Johnny Sexton marshalling them about the field, Garry Ringrose hasn’t returned after his return-to-play protocols and Caelan Doris was sick earlier in the week. Ronan Kelleher, Charlie Ngatai and Jamie Osborne are others unavailable today.
Having five internationals (and one soon-to-be in the case of Osborne) sidelined would put the kibosh on most teams but this is Leinster. They have the luxury of leaving another half-dozen Test players besides in the stands.
Thirteen of their starters in this round of 16 tie featured in the Six Nations just gone with Jordan Larmour failing to make it off the bench. Ross Molony – still awaiting a first cap – gets the nod in the second row instead of Jason Jenkins while Jimmy O’Brien instead of Ciaran Frawley in midfield is the other selection of note.
If there is a nagging thought about them then it may be a bench that isn’t quite as star-studded as usual, but that’s all relative to their ridiculously high standards and in the context of a side unbeaten in 20 games this season in both competitions.
That run has earned them home advantage for the duration of their involvement in both the URC and in the Champions Cup knockout stages. A second-string is already booked to make the long trip to South Africa later this month for ties against the Lions and the Bulls.
None of this is to say that today isn’t tricky.
Go back four years and Leinster hammered Ulster by 33 points at the RDS in January and then scrambled to a three-point win against them in a Champions Cup quarter-final at this same venue three months later. A similar script wouldn’t make for a shocking plot twist now.
“They have a really good understanding of what we're trying to do,” says Cullen. “They've come out and said it plenty of times in recent years, their desire (is) to win trophies, so they're clearly an ambitious, hungry bunch to do well. We need to respect that.
“The game in the RDS was unusual, there was the red card (for Cian Healy) and we'd a very slow start to that game. We need to learn the lessons from that first 20 minutes so we're not in that situation where we have to chase the game to that extent.”
The weather could yet have a say. There are mixed messages as to what the players will walk out to just before tea-time this evening but rain of some sort is likely and that skews things slightly. So does the fact that this is knockout rugby.
Ulster’s backline, as is usual, tends to catch the eye that bit more but if their pack can get some purchase with that impressive maul, slow down Leinster’s ruckspeed and break even at the setpiece, then they are in business.
Three big enough ifs, in fairness.
Leinster just look too well equipped, even without Sexton and the others, to fall at this hurdle. Two of the club’s four titles to date were won in the months after an Irish Grand Slam.
It’s hard to see the threepeat being stopped here.