So much for the Anglo-French carve-up. Four years on from the distasteful rupture that did for the Heineken Cup, and only two since the PRO12 failed to earn a single invitation for the quarter-finals, and here we are with three Celtic sides jostling with Racing 92 for a ticket to Bilbao in May.
No English offerings. And that on the back of a chastening Six Nations.
Leinster won’t really care about all that. This was about them. About this generation of players coming of age in the blue jersey and the knowledge that they now have what it takes to sew a fourth star above that harp in the not-too-distant future.
A home semi-final against Scarlets is the more immediate, and sobering, reward given it’s just 11 months since they lost a home league semi-final to the Welsh side when the visitors played the majority of the game with 14 men.
Still, seeing off the back-to-back reigning champions will give you that belief. Not just that but the manner in which they did it. Sarries came wielding a mallet only to be undone by the rapier-like incisiveness of a side gaining momentum just as they are losing theirs.
Leinster did have to live on their wits at times.
They had to withstand periods of intense pressure — almost the entire first quarter among them — and head coach Leo Cullen admitted that they rode their luck at times, particularly at the end of the first half when stealing a lineout on their own 5m line.
They cut their illustrious opponents open time and again, too.
It took Munster 80 minutes to cross the Saracens line on this patch of turf in last year’s semi-final. Leinster managed that inside just four here and then added two more in a dominant third quarter when, as the Aussies always tell us, champions really win games.
The likes of Dan Leavy, James Ryan, and Garry Ringrose had proven themselves in the green jersey of late, but there were still questions to ask about this Leinster collective and they were dispatched with aplomb in front of a full house at the Aviva Stadium.
Nothing won yet, but this felt big. Huge.
“Yeah, it is important there because there is a ‘Leinster Way’ as you call it, a way you want to do things, and, yeah, it takes time to bring some of the younger players through, which we have talked about,” said Cullen.
“So, they are shining at this stage, which is fantastic, and dealing with a hell of a lot between international and European experiences over the last few seasons as well, [but] it is just another step.”
Leavy was ridiculously good, Ryan too. The pair combined deliciously for the side’s second try, scored by Leavy, and amassed a mountain of work besides on both sides of the ball. This was their time and they delivered on the dot.
Eleven months since they lost a pair of semi-finals, to Scarlets and to Clermont Auvergne, and there is the inescapable sense that Leinster are on the cusp, their blend of youth and experience complemented by the additions of genuine class from offshore during the off-season.
The former Wallaby flanker Scott Fardy, used almost exclusively as a lock this term, was excellent in a back row making do without the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, and Josh van der Flier, while James Lowe was simply sublime on the left wing.
Lowe’s selection was a leap of faith by the brains trust.
With European law restricting Leinster to the use of just two from their Kiwi-Aussie contingent, Cullen & Co left Jamison Gibson-Park kicking his heels in the stand and put their trust in the young and inexperienced Nick McCarthy to provide back-up at nine off the bench.
If it was a gamble, then Lowe made sure it paid off.
It was Lowe who set up the first try after just four minutes, breaking the tackle of Liam Williams out wide and setting in motion the fluid move that ended with Ring-rose going over under the posts. And with close to an hour gone, Lowe was touching down himself.
Those efforts bookended a statement score from Leavy who passed to Ryan coming off a ruck, called for the return, and duly split a defence compromised by the decision of the pillar defender to leave his post for what would be a key seven points.
Those three tries, allied to five successful kicks on goal, left the province 30-12 to the good and, though Blair Cowan touched down with 16 minutes to go to buttress four Owen Farrell penalties, there was no sense of panic in the dying embers.
Even with Devin Toner sinbinned with seven minutes still to go.
“There is still lots of things in the performance we can get better at — that is one of the exciting things,” said Cullen.
One of the many.
R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, I Nacewa, J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy.
J McGrath for Healy (54); J Tracy for Cronin (60); A Porter for Furlong, N McCarthy for L McGrath and R Ruddock for Fardy (all 66); J Carbery for Sexton (69); R O’Loughlin for Nacewa and M Deegan for Murphy (both 79).
A Goode; L Williams, M Bosch, B Barritt, S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; R Barrington, J George, J Figallo; N Isiekwe, G Kruis; Itoje, S Burger, J Wray.
S Brits for George (52); B Spencer for Wigglesworth and A Lozowski for Barritt and B Cowan for Burger (all 59); C Wyles for Williams (HIA, 63); T Lamositele for Figallo (66); R Barrington for Vunipola and D Day for Kruis (both 77).
J Garces (France).
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