Routine is everything to players.
It is the DNA of what they do so we probably shouldn’t be surprised they tend to spout a fair bit about the need to live in the moment.
The tired old one-game-at-a-time syndrome.
It’s about sticking to the process, they tell us. Ignoring the noise outside the bubble. Controlling the controllables.
That’s all well and good but these are human beings who understand the context of their actions and big occasions colour their thinking.
And that was all too apparent to Jack Conan as he chased down Teddy Thomas as the Frenchman sought a way out of Racing 92’s 22 with only four minutes to go on Saturday and the teams locked on a dozen points apiece.
Leinster had been in such a promising position moments earlier. Until, that is, Leone Nakarawa had pinched a lineout to nip their attacking intent in the bud. It was then that Thomas took possession and went about completing the escape.
Thomas had been a thorn in the side of both Ireland and Munster already this season, his tries almost sinking the Six Nations Grand Slam bid in early February and putting paid to Munster’s European ambitions in Bordeaux.
This time he got it wrong — and Racing would pay the highest of prices — but the margins were ridiculously fine.
Rather than run it and lay a foundation for a ruck and a clearing kick, the winger had a peek around the outside of the Leinster defensive line. It was enough of a gap to lure him in and then Conan collared him.
Almost literally, actually, and that was what raced through his mind even as he brought the French international to ground and out of touch. Had he caught him too high? Had he offered Racing an out and even the platform to go on and win?
“I thought I was going to tackle him high because there was a lot of that, those seat-belt tackles, and people got done for it. He tried to fend me off and I blocked him down and luckily got underneath his arm. It was legal and it was low but it was on the verge.
“So, that was the kind of moment that you hope won’t come your way, that you will lose the game for the lads off the bench,” said a more than relieved Conan. “I would have been absolutely miserable. I’m happy that I got that one right anyway.”
That snapshot just about summed up how tight this one was. Another inch or two higher and Racing could have kicked the penalty, established favourable field position and gone about securing the last score.
The Parisians were gracious in defeat afterwards but Leinster were similarly deferential in victory. More than one among the winners admitted it had been a game that could have gone wither way.
There was still scope for flux after Isa Nacewa landed that winning penalty on the back of Conan’s tackle.
The closing scenes, leading up to Remi Tales’ fluffled drop goal attempt, demanded composure and discipline and yet aggression too. It was a nerve-jangling balancing act.
“It’s tough. We were extremely eager to get off the line and make hits but it was a difference of inches. If you go a step offside and the whistle is blown then you’ve lost the game for the lads so it is a testament to the lads and the hard work put in during the year.”
Everyone in blue was keen to widen the arc of praise in the aftermath. Coaches, admin staff, and the players who had just lost the British and Irish Cup final in Ealing got mentions but the likes of Conan are worth highlighting too.
It was a try from Barry Daly, on his Champions Cup debut, that sealed the bonus point against Montpellier in round one back in October so it seems fitting that Conan, another who drifts in and out of the side, who should have helped in closing it all out.
Leo Cullen has been at pains to the highlight the volume of players who have contributed to this season’s odyssey. Fifty-five have featured in total, 37 in the confines of their nine European games. From Daly to Conan, they all contributed.
Joey Carbery was one of three men who wasn’t required off the bench here but he featured five times in this competition this term. Ross Byrne served in six.
It’s worth noting given the moves to persuade one or other to Ulster next term.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved