It's make-or-break time for McLaughlin and Leinster
Published 09/01/2013 | 05:00
Back-row believes that returning stars could be turning point in Blues' Heineken Cup defence, writes David Kelly
The new year brings hope of renewal for Kevin McLaughlin.
Last June, he was a European winner and jostling with world champions New Zealand until the final moments of (yet another) agonising near-miss for Ireland.
He was hoping that the season would never, ever end. Now, his side are on the brink of European elimination and he is exiled from the same Irish squad he so thrillingly starred for in the summer.
Failure over the next fortnight to recoup enough of the lost ground conceded in the first four rounds of the Heineken Cup will see the back-to-back champions knocked out with barely a whimper.
"It would be really tough," admits the back-rower, whose season has been littered with stutters – mostly frustrating injuries.
"We're going to do everything in our power to stop it, but it wouldn't be the end of the world either. We've still got a really good squad. We're third place in the Pro12 league.
"We're going well in that. We're going to do all we can to progress in Europe, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, and we'll move on and we'll stay positive."
If that sounds like the club are inuring themselves to the painful ramifications of a premature exit, then think again.
With their cavalry of world-class talent now back in harness, McLaughlin is looking at a different narrative, that is, commencing rather than concluding, another wondrous European charge.
"There's an element of the season almost starting now or almost ending now," the 28-year-old says.
"As a team we don't like the thought of being out of Europe in January. We kind of look at January as the make-or-break month for the team.
"Obviously, the Pro12 is starting to pick up now. We always concentrate hard on that. But we're a team that has been at the top of Europe for the last few years and we want to stay there.
"It becomes harder every year, because teams are trying to topple you and we've learned that this year where Clermont outfought us in a couple of games.
"We've put ourselves in this position now, so it's going to be very much a case that, hopefully, our season is starting. Because we desperately don't want it to end."
McLaughlin doesn't have to over-extend his imagination to sketch parallels with his personal development since Leinster's glorious conclusion to last season.
A star of that narrow defeat to New Zealand at Christchurch last summer, his progress since then has been a series of near misses, being omitted from the November series, before injury stole his chance of featuring in the Dublin defeat to Clermont.
A quick vox pop of Dublin bar stools last weekend hinted that some Leinster supporters would prefer a back-row featuring Shane Jennings, rather than McLaughlin, alongside Messrs Heaslip and O'Brien.
Fittingly, McLaughlin (pictured) is not beating his breast in rage at the absence of adding a sixth cap to the piecemeal compilation acquired since debuting against Italy two years ago.
"I'd love to get back in there," he admits. "But all I can do is to concentrate on playing well for Leinster and take it from there.
"It's up to the powers that be whether they want to pick me or not."
Leinster's desperate qualification quest harbours some memories of the 2009-10 season when, after losing their opening home match as champions, to London Irish, Michael Cheika's side were on the back foot thereafter.
Modesty forbids McLaughlin from recalling his role in that term's rehabilitation, but a subsequent 36-13 bonus point win in Brive featured a brace of tries from his hands.
Fast forward and Leinster's perils are as heightened as possible with two bonus-point wins almost certainly required to qualify. They've scored only three tries in the opening four pool games, but last Friday's five-try haul has injected confidence.
"We were pushing for a home quarter-final back then," he recalls. "I think we scored a try towards the end, but I don't think we've ever been in this tight a situation in my time in Leinster.
"There is definitely an element of extra pressure there. No doubt.
"But I think our attack has definitely sharpened up a little bit. With the internationals back, I think we are functioning better.
"The guys coming back in make a big difference. We are playing with more confidence and there's no reason why we can't score a few tries at the weekend.
The pressure has been ratcheted up now that the team has returned from their two-day sojourn in Enfield and even today, on a day off, the next 10 days will be in every player's thoughts.
Their coach, Joe Schmidt, is not versed in the concept of a 'day off' as he agitates ahead of his first flirtation with European failure at Leinster.
"He's definitely a bit nervous, but I think everybody is," admits McLaughlin.
"Joe responds really well to these kind of situations, he is always really positive.
"He has delivered for us so much in the last couple of seasons and he always comes up with the right game plan. So, we are going to back him to do that this week."
Leinster got themselves into this mess; only they can extract themselves from its direst consequences.