All is not lost as Blues gear up for next challenge
Heaslip confident Leinster can bounce back from bitter Pool exit to finish season on high
Published 22/01/2013 | 05:00
They have not gone away, you know.
If anything typified Leinster's ability to react to jarring failure, it was evident in how they reminded us at the weekend just how they have dealt with prolonged success.
As a collective, the squad will not meet up again for at least two months as the country enters its latest international window.
But, in the briefest of time available to them as they mingled silently amongst each other on the trip home from Exeter late on Saturday night, the message was stunningly simple.
"Let's win everything," was the collective mantra.
And it was summed up in the predictably positive tweet from Jamie Heaslip who, if he ever found himself clutching a half-empty glass, would surely fling it as far away as humanly possible.
"Thanks for all the support," he tweeted. "Did what we could but wasn't to be. Now onto the next challenge."
Joe Schmidt has never won a Pro12 title with Leinster. Indeed, he has been snuffed out at the final hurdle in successive seasons, admittedly curtailed by the ardour involved in lifting the Heineken Cup on the previous weekend.
Conquering Europe's second tier is not to be sniffed at – five ranking points are up for grabs, a potential RDS final and, although it might be fanciful to attempt to fill Lansdowne Road for either Gloucester or Biarritz, Leinster's marketing ladies and gents must be primed for a European run that, in betting terms, is likely to outlast their two Irish rivals.
So, just as in their 2010 exit in defence of their title – due largely to the absence of two players, Mike Ross and Jonny Sexton, in the semi-final away to Toulouse – Leinster will not feel shamed despite the much more premature eviction this time round.
And they will, of course, be happy that they will probably not have to deal with Clermont in next season's pool stages – it is astonishing to think that had Toulon defeated Biarrtiz in last season's Amlin final, Leinster and their familiar foes could not have met in the pool stages.
That is for yesterday. Leinster now must concentrate on all their tomorrows.
As much as Leinster will seek to eke out every drip of competitiveness from what remains of this campaign, their under-achievement will not inure them from the most severely introspective examination of the critical flaws that undermined their tilt.
Schmidt's Monday reviews have already attained legendary status. The review of his first Heineken Cup washout must be equally cold-blooded.
FIVE THINGS FOR LEINSTER TO DO
1 KEEP THEIR BEST PLAYERS
This is the easiest task to delineate but also potentially the most difficult to achieve.
Leinster remain hopeful that Sexton will decline the overtures from Racing Metro that appear, not unsurprisingly, to have not yet reached either the club's owner or head coach, a slight flaw in that particular ruse, one suspects.
Should Sexton agree to stay, perhaps as early as this week, expect Leinster's other imminently out-of-contract stars to sign on the dotted line – Brian O'Driscoll, Ross, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney may all commit before Ireland open their Six Nations campaign against Wales in less than a fortnight's time.
2 FRONT UP
Jono Gibbes has rightly earned praise for his work as forwards coach over the past few years. Retaining him was arguably one of Joe Schmidt's key appointments when he hooked up with Leinster and he remains the favourite to succeed the Kiwi next year.
However, his side's line-out work has deteriorated significantly this season – one of the key components that militated against the side claiming an unlikely win in Clermont – while the standards at the breakdown have also slipped, with too few players being applied at rucks, as we saw again last Saturday. Without consolidated supply of ball from these key areas, Leinster's attack is rendered redundant.
3 SECOND-ROW SECOND RATE
Leinster's line-out woes have been compounded by a lack of resources in the second-row. Devin Toner will be the first to confess that he has not become the player he wanted himself to be – for two successive seasons, he has declared that he wanted to push on to regular international recognition.
That has not happened and Leinster have recruited heavily to plug a yawning gap – it was third time lucky this season as their fans never got to see how effective Quinn Roux could be.
Whether Mike McCarthy is the answer – the overnight success who is over 30 – remains to be seen. An extended contract for Leo Cullen, whose influence was supposed to be waning at this point, may now be a necessity, rather than an indulgence.
4 NEW BLOOD REQUIRED TO BACK UP THE BACKLINE
Amongst Leinster's ridiculously unlucky injury woes as they stuttered though the early stages of their qualification pool were a disproportionate amount of backs – Gordon D'Arcy (briefly), Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin O'Malley and both Kearney brothers.
Schmidt was repeatedly forced to switch Isa Nacewa from full-back and slot Ian Madigan at full-back where he looked less than comfortable. Had Fionn Carr (now on his way back to Connacht) been fully trusted by management, for example, there is no way Nacewa would have been forced from full-back.
There's a lot of enthusiastic chat about the many stars emerging at Leinster but, bar Madigan's stints at out-half, few of those candidates have done much to amplify their cause. Leinster may have to recruit or reject here.
5 SEND A POSTCARD TO LADY LUCK
Leinster could not have won successive Heineken Cups without a free injury list. Losing some of their best players for the early rounds this year was always going to undermine their challenge, as well as expose the lack of strength in depth.
That they will most likely not have one of the best sides in Europe this past couple of seasons – Clermont – in the same pool next season, will be a boon. When bad luck conspires against them next time, Leinster must ensure they are better equipped to cope.
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