Leinster already stand as clear favourites for this year’s Champions Cup honours but Robbie Henshaw believes the province needs to make an even bigger statement away to Montpellier tomorrow afternoon.
A “clean sweep”, secured at the home of the Top 14 leaders.
With five wins from their opening quintet of fixtures, Leo Cullen’s men have secured top spot in Pool 3, as well as a home quarter-final tie. The carrot of home advantage for a possible semi-final now dangles in front of them at the Altrad Stadium.
Yet Henshaw is of a mind that this latest appointment is about more than just that. There is a sense of a new generation of Leinster players eager to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors by planting their flag on the halfway line in a French stronghold.
“It’s massive,” said the centre this week. “We need to put down a marker. Going over there, we’ll have to win. Be it ugly or be it scoring a lot of tries or whatever. But we need to go over there with the mindset that we need to come out of there with the win.”
Leinster he said, need to know what it is to play in France and be comfortable, and what it is to play in France and be uncomfortable, and win either way. Easier said than done, of course. Even some of the club’s most decorated know that.
By the time the first of three Heineken Cups was won in 2009, Leinster had won four but lost the same number of ties in their previous eight visits to the continent in a window covering seven long and arduous seasons.
There’s no one blueprint but avoiding early damage is always preferable. In three visits to France last year, Leinster found themselves 14-3 down to Montpellier, seven adrift at the break in Castres and 15-0 in arrears to Clermont in the semi-final.
Yet, if there was a buzz about Leinster this time last season then it is almost imperceptible compared to the din about them this term as they brush through the pool stages and effect a clean sweep of the festive interpros.
The influx of youth has fused with the wisdom of their elders to major effect and Stuart Lancaster’s focus on individual skills with ball in hand has allied with a blitz defence that has proven a puzzle for opposing attacks.
There may have been no better snapshot of the freedom and accuracy with which this more expansive Leinster side is playing than the moment last week when Henshaw himself let fly a 30m-long pass off his left side that landed flush in a colleague’s bread-basket.
Not bad for a man some see as merely a battering ram.
“I try to express myself in terms of being well rounded, have that passing, that distribution game, and being able to be direct, a carrier, as well. Sometimes it depends on the situations, the type of game plan you are playing or the way the opposition are playing.
“I’d like to see myself as not just a crash-hit player. I like to vary my skills.”
Maybe the most notable aspect of Leinster’s recent form is the fact that their heavy rotation of players in and out of the side and matchday squad has had so little effect on a collective that glides along with such well-oiled ease.
Then again, it helps when it is the likes of Isa Nacewa slotting in. Absent through the turn of the year with a back issue, the club captain filled the midfield alongside Henshaw against the Scots last time and ended the day with two tries in his account.
Normally a wing with Leinster, the veteran has lined out at nine, ten, on both wings, at full-back and in the centre for the club. Known for his footballing abilities, it was interesting that Henshaw picked out his dominant defensive hits when quizzed about his colleague.
“He brings a kind of calmness to the whole back line and the team,” added the Ireland international, “he’s just focused on doing the basics really well and he showed that at the weekend. He ran some really nice lines.
“I don’t know how long it’s been since his last game but it looks like he just came back in seamlessly.
“Two tries from his first game back is incredible. The lines he picked and the ball he took on was great… He’s the type of player you’d want to play with.”
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