Saturday 23 September 2017

The battle is won -- now for the war

One bruising encounter will follow another for Leinster, writes Brendan Fanning

A t one point in the maelstrom that was the Millennium Stadium yesterday you thought, oddly enough, of Declan Kidney. Blessed to have had two Heineken Cup triumphs here, as well as a heart-stopping Grand Slam success, Kidney could have tuned into the emotional wavelength of Joe Schmidt as the Leinster coach sweated through every second of his team's journey.

More than once this season we have heard players liken the ferocity of some of the battles in Europe to those at Test level. On the physical scale yesterday, the dial was in the red zone.

When Kidney wasn't empathising with Schmidt, reliving what it is like to be a coach in a Heineken Cup final, he was praying that men he will need in August and September -- and hopefully October -- will be okay.

It would be a stretch to say that the Heineken Cup is a handy canter ahead of Saturday's Magners League final, or Grand Final to give it its official billing -- and, would you believe it, the occasion coincides with the millionth ticket sale this season! -- but it remains to be seen what will be Leinster's physical shape next weekend. Mentally, obviously, they'll be fine but Munster are ready and willing, and the last 500 terrace tickets sold out two days ago.

"I think after our performance in the league itself, where we ended up well clear, it's important for us to go on and win the trophy," says James Coughlan. "We owe that much to ourselves as a squad for the work that was put in when the internationals were away, but besides that it's a final, there's a trophy and a title on offer and that's what every side is judged on. No one will look back and remember who finished top of the league, it's whose name that's on the trophy that counts."

In Kidney's head, the chief criterion will be who is still standing after it. He needs some luck on the injury front. Leinster have done their best to help him. Schmidt has managed his resources well this season, enabled by a functional system, which he inherited, for recruiting and developing players.

Given the challenge he faced, with Kidney dictating time on the dance floor for his international stars, he needed that support. Even so, Schmidt has done brilliantly. It is unique in our experience to come across a coach who generates so much positive comment at so many levels.

It seems he has the champions fairly well tooled up for next term as well. Behind the scrum the road is clear for the next stage in the development of a group of young hopefuls.

Dave Kearney is already at a point where people expect him to make an impact. Meanwhile, Fionn Carr is coming in, bringing a superb finishing ability, but it's not altogether clear yet how much opportunity he will get to use it.

For Brendan Macken, his target should be to get to Christmas with more game time under his belt than injuries, and then reassess where he is. And Andrew Conway, with six league starts this season, is expected to kick on from there.

So far so good. Across the middle and out wide the cover is healthy, but if Kidney suddenly falls in love with Isaac Boss then Leinster are likely to be heading into competitive rugby in the autumn without the three scrumhalves who served them so well this season -- Boss, Eoin Reddan and Paul O'Donohoe (off to Connacht). In which case academy player John Cooney, who is being moved up to a development contract, is in the spotlight, and with no one else near him apart from schools star Luke McGrath. Is that the plan?

In the pack they are looking for another prop, and seem happy enough elsewhere -- presuming that South African Steven Sykes does a passable impression of Nathan Hines, which would be quite a trick, and that Damien Browne can restart a career that looked so promising when he left Connacht for Northampton in what feels now like a previous lifetime.

Throw in Ed O'Donoghue and Devin Toner and on paper the cover seems good, except that O'Donoghue's move south hasn't worked out, and Toner doesn't seem to be the answer either. That will put pressure on the academy lads and while Leinster, like Ulster, are churning out good numbers of backs, the wheels are moving a bit slower in the production of grunts. Even so, they are still the best equipped of the four provinces to cope with the demands of the World Cup next season. And while they are struggling through the first phase of Celtic rugby, out west they will be charging into it, hoping to have a head of steam by the time the Heineken rolls around. At last.

"It will help us with attendances, and commercially, and I think there will be a greater buy-in from people in the west because the Heineken Cup is the Champions League of rugby and people are fully aware of it," a delighted Connacht chief executive Gerry Kelly says. "It should also help us recruit, and retain, players. Players like to be playing in the Heineken Cup and if they see an opportunity they'll grasp it quicker than they have been in the past.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time. We'd have preferred to have done it with our own methods but in other countries people have been glad to get in. Last year, for example, Cardiff winning the Amlin got Scarlets back into it and they didn't mind how they got there. You take what you can get There's no doubt everyone here was supporting Leinster yesterday."

Having four teams in the premier competition for the first time will showcase Irish rugby, and across the water the Scots -- who are on their uppers -- and the Welsh (who are still unsure about the shape of their own structure) will look enviously at a system that, evidently, is doing something right, as illustrated by four Heineken Cups in six years. All Declan Kidney needs to do is keep it motoring along through the World Cup. Simple.

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