They may constitute Leinster’s old brigade but Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy are not finished yet, at least not if you listen to their ambitions for greater success.
Along with captain Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner, Sexton and Healy made Champions Cup history in Bilbao on Saturday when they joined French legends Cedric Heymans and Freddie Michalak as the only four-time European title winners in the history of the competition.
Nacewa will retire at the end of this season having nervelessly kicked Leinster’s two late penalties, the first of which brought his side level at 12-12, and then put them in front for the first time with 90 seconds to go and deliver victory to join the triumphs of 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Sexton, 32, had kicked the first three penalties in an attritional, tryless game in the rain at San Mamés Stadium before a groin strain persuaded him to hand over the kicking duties to Nacewa.
The victory capped a remarkable season for Irish rugby which had already delivered a Six Nations Grand Slam and Sexton is still driven to add a Guinness PRO14 title to his medal haul.
“Of course there is pride. We are lucky with players to have the group of coaches we work with at provincial and international level. When these young guys come through they need to be coached really well and they need to learn really quickly.
“We learned some harsh truths last year but then you have seen the influence of guys like Dan Leavy and James Ryan this year.
“Things have fallen into place for us as well, getting guys back from injury at key times like Robbie and Garry. Isa did a great job when they were out. We seemed to get guys fit at the right time for Ireland and Leinster and you need a bit of luck in all that.
“If you’d told me at the start of the season we would win a Grand Slam and win a Champions Cup, I’d have bitten your hand off. I’m so happy. We have got a big game next week (a PRO14 semi-final against Munster), hopefully get to another final and then there is a tour to Australia. We’ve one last push to make it that dream season.”
Loosehead prop Healy, 30, is equally hungry for more silverware but he did acknowledge winning four European titles was something special, particularly having won all nine games in the Champions Cup campaign.
“That’s something to hold onto all right,” Healy agreed.
“This one probably felt a bit more like a long time coming. It felt like the squad deserved what we got and it would have been pretty tough to take if we didn’t get it for the effort that’s gone in.
“We worked hard and it’s probably the nine (wins) out of nine that makes you feel like that. Seeing those lads do all the extra bits, it’s pretty evident when you’re in the building in Leinster, lads are putting in extra effort and it’s noted.”
Despite the long wait, six years from the third European title to the next, Healy never lost belief Leinster would return to the winner’s enclosure.
“You don’t play rugby if you don’t think it’s going to come. You have to have a dream and a vision and the plan is to put a lot of stars on the shirt. Not four, not five, I want to see Leinster grow and be dominant in Europe for years.”
Those younger team-mates have been getting plenty of plaudits en route to both Ireland’s Grand Slam and Leinster’s Champions Cup triumph but Healy recognised it was the whole squad that ensured this season’s successes.
“It’s a bit of yin and yang. We’ve got a team with high expectations, and expectations have to be high I suppose, but we just kind of have a bit of guidance and then it’s also on us to step up to the energy that they’re bringing. That’s class.”
Captain Nacewa had followed in the tradition of three-time European title-winning captain and current head coach Leo Cullen in lifting the trophy with a team-mate, on Saturday raising the Champions Cup with fellow departee Jordi Murphy, the No.8 who will leave his home province and join Ulster for next season.
“Jordi has been phenomenal,” Nacewa said.
“He is such a dedicated player. He has given his all. It’s pretty fitting for him to have an outstanding campaign. It’s good that he lifted the trophy. He has been right in the centre of it all, right in the mix of things throughout the whole campaign. And it was a good way for him to sign off on his European career with Leinster. Maybe he’ll be back someday.”
It was that sort of inclusive leadership from a senior player that has inspired the younger generation, including 25-year-old scrum-half Luke McGrath, who spoke warmly of the influence of more experienced team-mates.
“Isa and Johnny speak, they have so much experience,” McGrath said.
“They’ve won three before this one. The younger lads would listen to Johnny and Isa speak all week. They’ve done it before and we follow.
“They have that mindset, the winning mentality. It’s nothing else, it’s that mentality. Every single session, they want to be better.”
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