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