'When we come back from this it'll be folklore'
The Leinster captain brings you inside the dressing-room to reveal how they turned the Heineken Cup final around and lifts the lid on his relationship with coaches Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt
Published 23/11/2011 | 05:00
Millennium Stadium, Leinster dressing-room, at half-time
We're back in the dressing-room.
Normally, we take the first two minutes to cool down, recover, breathe out the first half, get our heads straightened out. Then, start thinking what we're going to do in the second half.
Ten minutes in the dressing-room can be a long time, but we're going to need all the time we can get. The lads look bad. Joe looks calm.
Our scrum has been a total disaster. We've taken a thrashing. This could be embarrassing. Keep calm...
I turn to Mike.
Keep it calm. Stay calm ... stay strong.
"What's going on?" I ask Mike, calmly.
Mike looks back at me, but he doesn't say anything.
Mike is the general of our scrum. Mike knows everything that's going to happen in every single scrum. Mike lives and breathes scrums. Mike Ross has prepared us for the Northampton scrum.
He knows their scrum as well as he knows our scrum. Mike and our scrum coach, Greg Feek, were ready for everything and anything Northampton had in mind.
"What's going on Mike?" I say again. Sexto's talking. Jonny Sexton and Shane Jennings do more talking in our dressing-room than anyone else -- everyone likes to hear them talking.
"LISTEN," Jonny shouts. "We were 10 points down to Toulouse, AND WE CAME BACK! And they weren't half the team these guys are!"
What? What did Jonny just say?
I feel like I'm smiling, but I know I'm not smiling. Jonny's just got that arse-ways! But, Jonny is almost right. We were 11 points up against Munster just a couple of weeks ago and we went out in the second half and stopped playing.
Northampton are going to stop playing. All we've got to do is start playing. Jonny's dead right. We were 10 points down against Toulouse, and they're twice as good as Northampton and we came back and beat them in the semi-final. I feel better. Feel calm.
"ALL THE FORWARDS WITH FEEKIE!" orders Joe.
Greg Feek has his laptop in his hand on the far side of the dressing-room. We all get over there to Feekie and huddle around him.
Feekie is running through all the scrums: Mike is being angled into Hartley every time they have a put-in. On our put-in, we're okay. We lost one against the head in our own 22 and they scored a try. That looks bad on Feekie's screen, but that was just a freak moment.
The ball had hit off Cian's leg, popped over to their side. A thousand-to-one shot. But, they're killing us ...
Feekie has told Mike what to do, he's told Cian and Straussy and Mike how to sort it. He showed us all that Northampton were waiting for the pressure to ease and then they were counter-punching. They stand our guys up and they keep pushing.
That's the message from Feekie and that's what I'd told Romain Poite out on the field in the first half.
"They come up and then they're f**ing pushing through," I shouted at the referee. But he was having none of it.
And so, I started to speak more slowly to him. And then -- f***ing hell -- I started to put on a stupid French accent. I was speaking to him in English with a French accent. So, I shut up.
Joe and the coaches have left the dressing-room. But, before leaving the dressing-room, Joe had stepped up his belief in us to a higher level.
"When we come back from this," he stated to everyone sitting around him, "it'll be ... FOLKLORE!"
The shock and horror ... The panic ... The pain -- all gone.
Everyone looks good. We're all calm. Everyone's ready. I see that.
Jenno is in for the second half.
I want the lads to know that we'll win this by doing the simple things right.
"Just hold the ball ... Find the holes!"
Jonny is still talking to the lads -- everyone likes to hear Jonny's voice.
"This will be remembered... forever," he shouts, before repeating it:
"This will be remembered ... FOREVER!"
My relationship with Michael Cheika had been interesting. We were completely different people, but I believe we had huge respect for one another.
He's so complex in many ways, but he's also brilliant.
We'd talk all the time, always as coach and captain. But, we'd never chit-chat, we'd never go for a beer, we'd never even think of meeting up socially.
That's because Cheiks wasn't one for a few beers at any time during the season really. He'd prefer to find a place in town which served up a great cup of coffee, and that's where we'd meet if we had to talk through some team business privately.
When Cheiks decided it was time to move on, nobody in Leinster was at all surprised. He was hot property after winning the Heineken Cup in 2009, and everyone in our camp thought that Cheiks probably always wanted to go to Paris.
He was a fluent French speaker, he owned a place there, and he never hid his love for the city.
That was always an in-house piece of fun amongst the players -- Who would Cheiks bring to Paris with him?
When he finally announced that he had signed up with Stade Francais, we all wished him well.
He was just plain 'Cheiks' to all of us who'd slowly but surely grown to love the man for the strangest reasons, and also due to the simple fact that he'd built the Leinster team from a soft-bellied and under-achieving rugby club into the No 1 team in Europe by the end of the 2008-09 season.
So, the abrasive, spontaneous, sometimes maddening, often brilliant Aussie exited stage left, and started a new chapter in his life in Paris with Stade Francais, and the quietly-spoken, measured Kiwi, who was making no big promises to anybody, entered stage right.
I liked Joe's style and approach from day one. You see and hear so many coaches in the professional game and you know that a great majority of them spend most of their daily hours spoofing. But, there is always a point to everything which Joe decides to do.
I'd met with Joe Schmidt before he was offered the Leinster job. Jonny Sexton and I sat down with him for about an hour or so, in a city-centre hotel, and we found him very interesting company from the very start.
Michael Cheika had decided to move on after spending five years rebuilding the organisation and maybe he felt that his job was done.
The Leinster players didn't want Cheiks' replacement to be some big-shot name with big dreams. We wanted somebody who could give us something definable, something tangible. We could see by Joe's CV that he's had an incredible amount of experience and his knowledge of the game was second-to-none.
He also came highly recommended by Isa Nacewa, who had Joe for three years at the Blues. As Isa is one of the most respected players in the entire squad his advice was good enough for everyone.
Even though our early-season results were awful, he had us all thinking and excited about what might lie ahead of us. And, if not in the season commencing, then certainly in future seasons.
Joe sat down with every single player when he took up the job, but they were not long, soul-searching conversations.
No, they were fast and to the point -- much like the manner in which he liked to do everything in the team camp and on the field.
Joe is business-like. He likes to get the job done and he likes real-life intensity and full concentration applied to whatever it is he asks us to do.
When I sat down with him, he had me on the back-foot fairly quickly.
We were just a minute or two into our talk.
"So, Leo... What are you going to bring to the team this season?" he asked, straight-up.
Just like that!
Thirteen years of being a professional rugby player was of no real importance to Joe, that was clear. He wanted to know what I was going to do for him in the next eight or nine months. I didn't mind the question.
Actually, I liked it. I could see what he was aiming for ... he was dead right to wipe the slate clean on everything which had occurred in the Leinster camp before he arrived.
But, his questions were damn good. He hit one of our forwards right between the eyes, with one spectacular punch.
"So, if Paul O'Connell saw you walking down the street, what do you reckon he'd be thinking about you?"
First time Joe had addressed the players as one body, he spent all of 15 seconds with his pleasantries.
"Hi... I'm Joe Schmidt... I'll try to get to know everyone in the next few weeks. Best of luck... SEE YOU LATER!"
That's the way to do it!
Joe, in my opinion, is the purest rugby coach, in terms of technique and application, I have ever come across.
Brian O'Driscoll is a wonder to me. In the last 10 years I've tried to figure out the Brian O'Driscoll who has become one of the greatest Irish players of all time, and one of the few 'superstars' of rugby on the world stage, but I can't. I've often wanted to ask him, occasionally, how it happens for him.
Or how he makes it happen all the time. But how do you bring that up in conversation with a team-mate without looking like a total pot-hole?
Incredibly, he has this innate belief, which grows, every time he gets onto a big stage.
He wants to be there. He wants to be his best out there. But, even on the training ground with Leinster, he amazes me with his crazy, fired-up competitive instinct which never, ever dims. I'll never understand how somebody can have that.
But now, with Leinster, Drico and I, and some of the older lads, do have one massive characteristic in common, and that's an unyielding desire to prove to people, over and over, and over again, that we will never again be underachievers.
Personally, those (underachieving) days will grate with me forever.
I've got to admit that, throughout my adult life, I have been getting away with having a crocked left shoulder, more than anything else, through common sense, fast thinking and knowing the game intimately.
But a shoulder is just a shoulder. You can get by, even at the highest level in the professional game, with a damaged shoulder, whereas with a bad ankle or with a knee which has blown up there's no chance whatsoever.
Once the final whistle had gone in Cardiff, I had Darce and Shaggy in my head. Shaggy had had such a tough year with injury, and he's also been such a leader in our dressing-room. He's been so courageous. Darce is made of stone, and Leinster has built so much on his shoulders!
As the medal presentation began, I told the two of them to hold back and stay with me!
When, at the very end of the presentation ceremony, my name was announced as captain, the three of us walked up onto the rostrum together. We shook hands with the officials.
I went behind the trophy. Darce and Shaggy stood either side of it ... and I shouted ... "One ... Two ... THREE!" The Heineken Cup was lifted high into the air.