Leinster will match Toulouse’s record of four European Cup titles if they can account for Racing 92 in Bilbao tomorrow. Brendan O’Brien examines why, six years after the third of their Heineken Cup titles, the province is again on the verge of something big
Nine years on from the first of their successes and you could be forgiven for thinking that Rocky Elsom won the competition all by himself, such is the mythology around his role. The Australian’s influence was considerable, but it was just one piece of the jigsaw that fell into place in 2009.
The arrival of Michael Cheika was the kick up the backside the province required, on and off the field. The Randwick man revolutionised Leinster’s approach, their facilities and their culture, draining the soft underbelly from a side tagged as ‘Ladyboys’ and delivering them to the Promised Land.
Even he couldn’t have done all that without the raw materials: The proliferation of native talent in the squad, the buy-in to the provincial scene that had already taken place and the naked desire to bring to an end their days of playing a distant second fiddle to Munster. Here’s how they’ve done it this time…
School’s out for the youngsters
The enviable production line of players from the Leinster schools’ system is one obvious common denominator in the province’s professional successes but the quality and quantity of talent being churned out of late has made an extraordinarily quick impact on this team.
Of the 23 that played in the semi-final against Scarlets, eight were grads from that local system who had only made their European debuts since the last World Cup. Added to that list are the likes of the injured Josh van der Flier. Max Deegan, Ross Byrne and others. Dan Leavy and James Ryan have been consistently among the top performers, Garry Ringrose should have been a Lion last summer and Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter have all added impact off the bench.
Dad’s Army going strong
Jonathan Sexton is surely in the running for world player of the year, Rob Kearney continues to confound his critics with exceptional displays, Fergus McFadden was in superb form until injured, while Cian Healy and Devin Toner are still making waves up front.
The Foreign Legion
Isa Nacewa will retire — for good this time — when the season is done and, though he lacks the pace of old, he has made sensational contributions this campaign again, including a man-of-the-match effort against Exeter Chiefs in December.
Scott Fardy only arrived in the summer but his influence is immeasurable, Jamison Gibson-Park showed in the Scarlets game that he is more than able for this stage and James Lowe has been jaw-droppingly good with ball in hand.
The former England head coach has bowled everyone over since arriving early last season as senior coach. Bright, considered and respectful, the team have thrived under his tutelage. Kudos to Leo Cullen for being man enough not to be challenged by the addition of such a high-profile figure to the coaching staff. The few weeks Graham Henry spent as a consultant in Dublin a few years back shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Gap in the market
Leinster have gone this far the hard way, getting the better of the English and French league leaders, the top team in the opposite PRO14 conference, the reigning PRO14 champions and the current European champions.
However, with Toulon not quite matching up to their three-in-a-row side, Saracens operating at a level below that of the last two seasons and the likes of Clermont Auvergne struggling, there is an opening for someone to step up and assume the mantle and Leinster are equipped for that.
It may be just coincidence, but it has been pointed out that the failure of the English Premiership sides to make an impression this year may be linked to the strain placed on players who were part of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. The Leinster XV that started against Saracens in the quarter-final had a combined 12,488 minutes played in the season, versus 20,766 for their opponents.
But, more than any other side, Leinster have mastered the art of resting players and returning them at full pelt. “The Irish system is great, but we still play a decent amount of rugby,” said Tadhg Furlong this week. “I think I’m on 21 games this season, so it’s not as if you’re completely in cotton wool.”
Any which way, (including loose)
Some teams can run around you, others over you. Scarlets like to allow their opponents most of the possession and territory and then hit on the counter. Leinster can hurt sides in all those ways and more. They are a chameleon of a side. This was most obvious last December when Cullen’s men met Exeter Chiefs twice in the space of a week. The Irish side won an arm wrestle in Sandy Park and then made up an early deficit at the Aviva Stadium by playing a far more expansive brand of rugby.
“You saw that Aviva game was played at a real pace,” said Fardy before Christmas. “It was frenetic, a real physical game, lot of tackles and a lot of rucks and the ball was in play for a certain amount of time, while, if you look at the game at Sandy Park, it was just close quarters. What was it…? Forty-five phases of pick ’n’ go phases [at one point]. The big thing about rugby is conditions will always dictate how the game is going to be played.”
The forecast for tomorrow in the Basque Country is for a cool 12 degrees come the kick-off and for a dry spell following a wet afternoon. Whatever the conditions, Leinster have all the ingredients to handle them.
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