We use a quote in Leinster imported from a famous American football coach that reads: "Defence wins championships". If last season's Heineken Cup triumph was built on our defence (we conceded five tries in nine matches) a quick look at the points-against tallies from all the final group tables shows we have conceded only 60 points in the six matches so far, with Biarritz, on 77, our nearest competitor.
Since Kurt McQuilkin became defence coach with Leinster, this area has been the most improved aspect of our game and it means that even when our attack isn't as fluid as we would like we can still find a way to get the required result.
Kurt will work with individuals during the week on tackle technique, particularly how we can become better at the choke tackle. The 'choke' is the term given to the tackle where you look to hold your opposite man up in the air for as long as possible, which gives our defensive line more time to reset and that leads to more line speed, which helps make more impact tackles and force turnovers.
We will also spend a lot of time during the week at training defending against that week's opposition's patterns and special plays. The academy and the non-selected senior players will simulate our opponent and this is vital in helping us prepare defensively week in, week out.
I didn't find out until Wednesday last week that I would be getting a start for the big match with London Irish in Twickenham. Michael Cheika told me he wanted me to bring as much physicality and aggression to the game from the start and that, because I haven't had a lot of game time recently, the plan was to replace me with John Fogarty after 30 minutes.
While we lost a few lineouts early on, things had settled down in that area and I am happy with my contribution in those early exchanges. Some pundits or friends would have thought that I had been given the shepherd's hook by the coaches but, while I would have preferred to have played longer, it's about doing what's best for the team and ensuring we got the result we needed. Fogs is match fit at the moment, and he came on and had a big impact, which is what was needed. There was a big Twickenham crowd of over 37,000 and the atmosphere was very tense. We had qualified already due to Munster beating Northampton the night before -- as 20 points guaranteed us a best-placed runners-up spot at the very least.
However, we had revenge on our mind, as well as wanting a home draw for the quarter-finals, which only a win or draw would provide. London Irish had beaten us in the very first round at the RDS and since then we have been in a 'war' to qualify.
The game was, typically, a tight affair and, after Jono Sexton and Chris Malone exchanged penalties, we managed to score the first try when Isa Nacewa dived over in the corner after our forwards disrupted their scrum. Isa was dangerous all afternoon. He flies back to New Zealand this week to get married and has to be back in time for our next Magners League match in mid-February. Players generally get married in June during our month off but Isa's sister is getting married in Auckland this week so, with all his family already going to be there, he decided to have both weddings the same week. Defence on both teams was on top for most of the game, and it looked to be heading for a draw after Malone's unconverted try levelled the scores with 20 minutes to go, until Malone kicked a penalty in the 77th minute to put them 11-8 up. If the match finished like that we both would have qualified but we both would have had an away quarter-final.
This was the moment that our experience in Europe showed and we didn't panic. Sexto kicked the restart high to the middle and a great chase by Horgan, Heaslip and company led to a turnover which, after a few phases, Sexton dropped into the pocket and kicked a brilliant drop goal to level the match.
London Irish still had time to miss two more drop-goal attempts, so the match wasn't without drama even if lacking free-flowing rugby. The draw was probably a fair result and we were happy enough afterwards, especially when it was confirmed that we had a home quarter-final. Seeing how many Leinster supporters had travelled again to follow us in London, it's great to be able to reward them with a home game. As one fan said to me in the airport, Sexton's drop goal was a €500 kick as that was what it would have cost him had we had to travel away in the next round!
It was only after Sunday's games that we were sure we would be playing Clermont as both Toulouse and Biarritz both won their matches. Clermont are a very strong side and are currently top of the French championship. Their backs coach Joe Schmidt is also going to be our new head coach next season, which makes it an even more interesting match-up.
The internationals are gone into camp now for the Six Nations and I am sure confidence levels couldn't be higher with Munster and Leinster having home draws and Connacht still in the Challenge Cup. The rest of the Leinster players have a week off and a group travelled to Barcelona for a few days' holiday. My neck went into spasm on the flight home and I ended up in A&E at St Vincent's on Monday. It's a lot better now that I am loaded up with Valium, but it will be a week of physio for me and I will try and get in as much training as I can until my neck settles down.