Cautious Leinster should know all about the Tigers' history of inflicting pain on the road
Joe Schmidt knows Leicester cannot be taken for granted, writes Brendan Fanning
Published 03/04/2011 | 05:00
T hree things stand out from the preamble to the last time Leinster and Leicester met in Lansdowne Road in a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
It was 2005, the year Declan Kidney was in Donnybrook, and Leinster had come out of their pool with full marks, a trick they have only managed twice in 16 years of competition. This six-out-of-six performance prompted one hapless reporter to suggest to Reggie Corrigan that, seeing as Leinster had topped the race into the quarters and Leicester had only got over the line in a photo finish for last place, surely the home team would be hot favourites to progress? You could actually hear Corrigan groan.
Actually that was the second thing. The first had come when the Leicester players were flying home from Calvisano, their final pool game, and were informed en route that they would have to go to Dublin in the quarters. They cheered.
The third was on the day itself. You watched the Tigers jogging to the dressing-room after an eyeballs-out warm-up, you saw the look on the faces of Martin Corry and Martin Johnson and Lewis Moody, and you knew the sun wouldn't be coming out again that day. It was a game that never really started.
Why are we banging on about a contest that happened six years ago and now has only a handful of survivors between the two teams? Because it was a fixture that really appealed to Leicester; it was right up their narrow street. As with the pool game in Thomond Park in 2007, when they ruined Munster's unbeaten record just before the diggers moved in to the old ground, this is the best team in England against the best team in Ireland before a full house and a with lots at stake.
It fuels the fire too that England, with five Tigers on board, lost to Ireland at this venue a fortnight ago -- not because there is any burning desire to alter that record, rather to prove that it doesn't matter: this is Leicester, not England. And they are big enough and sufficiently focused to return to the scene of the mugging and not worry about being beaten up again.
Central to that would have been how they trained last Monday. Leicester like to set standards on two fronts when they practice: the internationals are viewed in the same light as the journeymen; and the physicality tends towards the brutal. This was something of an eye-opener for Shane Jennings when he moved over there a couple of months after that 2005 quarter-final. His abiding memory is of wholesale battering.
"And apparently when I went there it was a lot tamer than it had been as well," he says. "(Graham) Rowntree and those lads and (Martin) Johnson used to just bash the young lads, and those young lads, by the time I got there, were in the middle of their professional career. And they were bashing the young lads.
"Lads were coming out of Monday night games fronting up on Tuesday mornings for a physical lineout defence session or a mauling session and that was just the way it was. I remember my first scrummaging session: I was propping David Young -- he plays for Edinburgh now, he was about 18 or 19 at the time -- and there was just a big digging match. He didn't hold back at all -- against Rowntree -- and Rowntree was loving it. That was just the way it was and I was thinking, 'What the f**k have I got myself into here?' I think I'd seen one or two dings in Leinster -- I think between Eric (Miller) and Trev (Brennan) -- and that was about it. That was probably about the height of it. It was just the whole training ethos they have. I don't know whether it's the right way or the wrong way -- strength and conditioning coaches will have their opinion, but it works for them. They train hard during the week and play hard at the weekend and that's the way it has always been at Leicester. That's the way it will be with Cockers, anyway."
Cockers is Richard Cockerill who has done a better job as coach than you might have imagined. They buy shrewdly -- number eight Thomas Waldrom doesn't look like the modern number eight but he is all there -- and everyone who comes in the door surrenders to their ethic and single-mindedness. In this regard, Cockerill was the perfect man to carry the torch after the club had gone off beam first in hiring Eddie O'Sullivan's Argie pal, Marcelo Loffreda, and then his replacement, Heyneke Meyer, had to go back to South Africa within a few months of getting the gig.
Under Cockerill, they have added another two Premiership titles. He was the face they saw first thing on the Monday morning when the England crew fetched up after a hard weekend in Dublin. Hard yakka so it was.
"It was the only thing we could do," he says. "What's gone and done with their country, whichever country it is, you keep an eye on it but it's not my concern. My focus is not to worry about consoling them or congratulating them it's about: 'Right you're back at Leicester and you've got a job to do'.
"I treat everybody the same, whether it's a world-class player like Tom Croft or a squad player. They'll get the same treatment whoever they are to get the best for Leicester.
"You've got to be consistent. I don't want to talk about Ireland v England. To be fair, all the players have been pretty much the same. They understand what the crack is, they understand I'm not interested in what they do with their countries, what I'm interested in is what they're going to give for the club and their team-mates at the weekend."
Last weekend, the Tigers demolished Bath. At least that's how it seemed. The 37-6 scoreline was hard to miss but beneath the radar there were enough line breaks conceded by Cockerill's team -- where the power of the Tuilagis is undermined by defensive indiscipline -- to give Joe Schmidt areas to attack. And Leinster are as well equipped as any team in Europe to do that.
For the rest of the week they will be talking about how tight the final was in 2009, where injuries tore a hole in Leicester's challenge, and of the defeats by the Tigers in 2005 and 2008. Jennings (pictured) and Leo Cullen will be prevailed upon to tell more stories of their two seasons in Welford Road and how it helped their game. And all of it will focus Leinster heads on the idea that unless they are at the top of their game this could all go horribly wrong.
Perhaps the last time they would have felt like this was against Clermont, also at Lansdowne Road, when they produced an awesome level of aggression and accuracy. The starting point to going down that road again will be to deny the Tigers space, and quickly. Leinster too have their own bandwagon which is on a roll. "That's something I noticed when I came back (from Leicester)," Jennings says. "It was just incredible the interest and involvement in the whole province and I think that's something that's been very, very positive because there are so many guys from various parts of the province and everybody feels involved. I know busloads of relatives, friends and families do come down. It's very encouraging from a personal level and then for the team as well because we really feel that we want to play for our province. We want to have that feedback from the fans and it has happened. That's one of the things that I've really noticed, and it's a massively positive thing."
It's unrecognisable from 2005.
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