Leinster

Rugby World - - CONTENTS - Words Tom Eng­lish // Main Pic­ture Billy Stick­land/ In­pho

Those in the know don’t ex­pect Leinster to rest on their lau­rels af­ter a dou­ble- win­ning sea­son

NOW THAT they are cham­pi­ons and masters of all they sur­vey, those grim months of

2016 seem like a life­time ago, a sur­real sea­son when Leinster fin­ished with one win from six in Europe and ended up bot­tom – bot­tom! – of their pool. Dumped be­fore the knock­outs. There was quite a post-mortem, es­pe­cially given the na­ture of their demise that started when Wasps went to Dublin in Novem­ber and won 33-6 and car­ried on in the re­turn match in Jan­uary when 61 points were scored and 51 of them be­longed to Wasps.

Back then Johnny Sex­ton spoke about how dif­fer­ent things had be­come at Leinster com­pared to be­fore, when the Euro­pean Cup was won in

2009 un­der Michael Cheika and in 2011 and

2012 un­der Joe Sch­midt. There was also the Euro­pean Chal­lenge Cup in 2013, a rel­a­tive af­ter­thought in those days of plenty.

“Cul­tur­ally, we are nowhere near where we were when we were win­ning those tro­phies,” said Sex­ton in April 2016. “We’re not within touch­ing dis­tance of it and peo­ple can kid them­selves other­wise, but I think that’s the big­gest is­sue.”

Sex­ton’s mood didn’t lighten any the fol­low­ing month when Con­nacht ran all over them in the Pro12 fi­nal at Mur­ray­field. “That sea­son was the nadir for us,” says Mike Ross, the Leinster tight­head of the time. “The fail­ure in Europe and those losses to Wasps were what we needed, even if we didn’t know it. It showed how far we’d

fallen from the stan­dards we’d set our­selves. It was a real kick up the arse.

“For those of us who were at the World Cup that sea­son we were al­most in mourn­ing a lit­tle bit be­cause of the way we went out. I’m not sure how good our frame of mind was for Europe. It takes time to build a win­ning cul­ture and we built it from 2010 to 2013 and we lost our way then. If you’re im­mersed in that en­vi­ron­ment you don’t no­tice things slip­ping, but when Johnny came back from Rac­ing he saw a big dif­fer­ence.”

From there to here. Euro­pean cham­pi­ons and win­ners of the Pro14. Dou­ble glory. Of the 23-man Ire­land squad who beat Eng­land and won the Grand Slam in March, 14 were from Leinster. Of the start­ing line-up that won the de­ci­sive third Test in June and gave Ire­land their first se­ries win in Aus­tralia for 39 years, eight were Le­in­ster­men.

You hes­i­tate to call it a dy­nasty be­cause it’s only one sea­son and one Euro­pean triumph, but it’s sure got the po­ten­tial to be one.

Ross won two Heineken Cups in the blue jersey. He knows what it takes and says he could see all of this com­ing. “My last sea­son at Leinster was 2016-17, so I had a year work­ing with Leo Cullen and Stu­art Lan­caster as a part­ner­ship and I could see there was a great syn­ergy be­tween them. We were go­ing well in 2017 and I thought I could smell a Euro­pean Cup. I said it to Isa (Nacewa) and he thought I was right. And I was. It was just that I was a year early. We lost to Cler­mont in the semi-fi­nal. There was only five points in it at the end.”

Ask Ross if Leinster can go again this sea­son and he doesn’t hes­i­tate. “I think they can. When we won two in a row we got to a point where de­feat wasn’t in our vo­cab­u­lary. This team looks like that. The young lads have a taste for it and of­ten suc­cess comes in twos and threes. If you look at the age pro­file and qual­ity they have, I don’t see why they can’t re­peat it.

“There’s lots of com­pe­ti­tion and qual­ity in ev­ery po­si­tion. Look at

“Hav­ing more po­si­tions

on tHe field up for grabs

stops peo­ple get­ting lazy”

loose­head – Jack McGrath and Cian Healy and be­hind them you have Bryan Byrne and Peter Doo­ley, who would be push­ing to start at a lot of other clubs. The hooker po­si­tion – Richardt Strauss has re­tired but Sean Cronin and James Tracy are capped in­ter­na­tion­als.

“At tight­head you have first- and sec­ond-choice Ire­land play­ers in Tadhg Fur­long and Andrew Porter and then you have Michael Bent, who’d prob­a­bly be start­ing at most other clubs as well. Scott Fardy has added a lot of nous be­hind them. If you ever watch him around the ruck he’s an ab­so­lute night­mare. He’s just so messy, he hangs on, he gives you a nudge, he sticks his hand in, he clings on like a limpet, a very ef­fec­tive ruck cleaner.

“James Ryan is one of the most com­plete ath­letes I’ve seen in a long while. Dev Toner is like a fine wine and gets bet­ter with age. You have Ian Na­gle and Mick Kear­ney as well and the back row is an em­bar­rass­ment of riches de­spite Jordi Mur­phy go­ing up to Ul­ster. Watch out for Cae­lan Doris in the back row. He had an out­stand­ing U20 World Cup, even if his team didn’t. Dan Leavy, Jack Co­nan, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Rud­dock and hope­fully we’ll see Sean

O’Brien. You need depth to win. Look at when Toulon were dom­i­nant. They had two or three top-class play­ers in ev­ery po­si­tion and Leinster have that now.”

They will, of course, miss the great Isa, who has re­tired, and Joey Car­bery, who has moved to Mun­ster. Nacewa was good enough to play won­drously in any num­ber of po­si­tions – he was on the wing when Leinster won the Cham­pi­ons Cup and in the cen­tre when they won the Pro14 – and his class and lead­er­ship will take some match­ing.

Car­bery has that flex­i­bil­ity, too. “They didn’t want to lose him but they have oth­ers com­ing through,” says Ross. “There’s lots said about the Leinster schools sys­tem and the con­veyor belt of play­ers some schools are pro­duc­ing. There is a tremen­dous amount of strength the Leinster Acad­emy can draw on. Some of these lads are leav­ing school and are play­ing Test rugby in­side two years. The pow­er­house rugby schools in Dublin are run­ning in­cred­i­bly pro­fes­sional pro­grammes.”

Eoin Red­dan, the for­mer scrum-half, was also in those Leinster teams that won Europe in 2011 and 2012 hav­ing al­ready been on the Wasps side that took the ti­tle in 2007. Red­dan played

140 games for the prov­ince.

“The big­gest thing for Leinster is keep­ing that com­pe­ti­tion for places,” says Red­dan. “That is the only way to keep mov­ing for­ward. You’ll of­ten hear older com­men­ta­tors talk­ing about three or four lead­ers in a team and three or four peo­ple on ev­ery team love hear­ing that, love pan­der­ing to it, be­cause it locks down their place in the side.

“It’s ac­tu­ally no good for a team. You won’t get ev­ery player feel­ing the heat from a ri­val for the jersey – Johnny Sex­ton will al­ways be the start­ing ten for the re­ally big games – but that’s where you want to get to and Leinster are very close to it. There’s se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion.

“You need guys think­ing about win­ning their place on the team next week rather than dream­ing about win­ning tro­phies in six months’ time. It’s about the here and now. The more po­si­tions on the field that are up for grabs, the bet­ter chance you have of get­ting sus­tained suc­cess. It stops peo­ple get­ting lazy. You can be a slave to think­ing about tro­phies. You don’t try to win a tro­phy; you do the things that peo­ple who win tro­phies do – you sleep a cer­tain way, you eat a cer­tain way, you train a cer­tain way. It’s not about achiev­ing a big tar­get, it’s about achiev­ing a lot of small tar­gets.”

This is the psy­chol­ogy of a win­ning team. Red­dan has been over this course be­fore with cham­pion sides and he knows what’s what. He wasn’t at

Leinster when they won their first Euro­pean crown, but he felt the im­pact of it when he ar­rived soon af­ter.

He can’t re­mem­ber if it was said to him di­rectly or whether it was some­thing that en­tered his sub­con­scious, but it was clear to him that be­cause Chris Whi­taker, the Aus­tralian scrum-half who was on that vic­to­ri­ous Leinster team in 2009, had won the Heineken

Cup then the same was ex­pected of him.

Whi­taker had handed back the jersey af­ter do­ing it proud. In the new Leinster cul­ture, it was Red­dan’s job to do the same. “Win­ning the first ti­tle is al­ways the hard­est. That first one set the tone for ev­ery­body else. When I ar­rived I felt that if I didn’t win a Heineken Cup then I couldn’t match the per­son who was there be­fore me and if you mul­ti­ply that by all the guys who joined then that’s a highly mo­ti­vated dress­ing room.

“Be­fore Leinster won last sea­son I heard Tadhg (Fur­long) say­ing that he was be­ing asked all the time about what it would be like if he was to help put a fourth Euro­pean Cup on the board and he said that most of the boys hadn’t won one, not to mind three or four. I loved that hon­esty. That was an at­ti­tude where young lads are think­ing, ‘The club has won three but I haven’t con­trib­uted, I haven’t put any­thing in the cabi­net yet. Un­til I’ve put some­thing in there I’m not go­ing to rest’.”

Red­dan and Ross, two dec­o­rated Leinster play­ers from a golden era, are of one mind on their old club’s ca­pac­ity to kick on this sea­son.

“They might get un­lucky, they might have a bad day, or an­other bril­liant team might have an in­spired day against them, but they won’t lack for hunger,” says Red­dan. “And that goes for ev­ery depart­ment. I look at Leo and Stu­art and those are two hun­gry guys with a great knowl­edge of the game.

“One is just start­ing off and is des­per­ate to learn and to prove him­self and he has al­ready won a dou­ble, and the other is an ex­pe­ri­enced man who feels like he didn’t get to show his full po­ten­tial in a big and pub­lic role with Eng­land and he’s mad keen as well.

“It’s a great time for these Leinster play­ers to have Leo and Stu­art and a great time for Leo and Stu­art to have these Leinster play­ers. It just works.”

The boys in blueLeinster cel­e­brate with the Pro14 and Cham­pi­ons Cup tro­phies

Rise and shine Lock James Ryan

Low pro­file Scott Fardy scores against the Scar­lets

Dou­ble actCullen and Lan­caster

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