Tuesday 15 October 2019

All fired up for parting shot

Leinster will hope to end the Joe Schmidt era with a trophy

onathan Sexton
onathan Sexton
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Here are two statements from Leinster scrumhalf Isaac Boss.

The first is readily believeable. More than that, you wouldn't question it for a second: "We don't go into a game half-hearted and we have put everything into this Amlin because this is the way the team plays. We're gunning for Stade Francais."

As for the second – about the quality of the French opposition coming to the RDS on Friday night – well, we're not so sure: "They're very good. The forwards are a real lifeblood of their team. (Sergio) Parisse is a key part of the team as well. They have got a very strong team and haven't done as well in the league as they should but I think they have got a real focus on this Amlin. They have won twice away from home, Perpignan and Bath, so they're definitely not scared of coming here. It's going to be a lot tougher than Biarritz were."

Let's go back to the bit about Leinster and the resolve they will bring to the contest. You don't expect their players to tear down the changing room door with a shout of 'Let's do it for Joe!' Equally, however, it is inescapable that the coach has been especially meticulous this past week and a half about leaving the place in the best possible shape for his successor, Matt O'Connor.

In that circumstance then it won't happen that the players stagger into Friday night half asleep.

There was a time when Leinster would go weak at the knees at the prospect of playing the Paris club – three of the four previous meetings down the years ended in defeat – but that was a world away. For Leinster, this is their third European final in a row, and success on Friday would give them four European titles in five seasons.

Between their innate professionalism and the desire to send off Schmidt in the best style possible, Leinster will be all over Stade like a rash.

Of course the coach isn't the only one heading out the door. At their awards dinner last week, attended by 500 in the Mansion House, presentations were made to the clutch of players who will be elsewhere next season. Jonny Sexton was included in this batch. The protocol is that if you are retiring then you are interviewed on stage by a fellow player – in this case Shane Jennings did his Eamonn Andrews impression with Isa Nacewa – and if you are simply moving on then you are called up, given a cap, and you exit stage left.

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Leinster stuck to the routine because they hope that when it comes to Sexton's retirement, he will be doing so in their jersey. But this is not under their control.

Sexton's decision to go to Racing this summer is motivated primarily by his not being sufficiently valued in this country – bizarrely, Jamie Heaslip is paid more – and that figure is determined by the IRFU. Had they put him in the very top bracket, whether or not that was in the same parish as the wedge offered by Racing, he would happily have stayed.

With that in mind it might have made sense for Leinster to make more of a fuss about him in front of the full house last week. It's always worth remembering that playmakers don't just enjoy being able to run a game; they run smoother when that talent is recognised.

The crowd in the RDS will leave Sexton in no doubt however about how highly they value him. On what will possibly be his last European game ever for Leinster, for we don't know for sure if he will ever be back, his adrenaline levels will be measured on a different chart to those of Jules Plisson, the likely starter at 10 for Stade.

On paper this has all the hallmarks of a full-on contest. As Leinster legend Felipe Contepomi put it – his early-season injury meant he wasn't registered for this competition – there is a bonus beyond winning a European title.

"We've got a lot at stake and having the opportunity to maybe come to that game and picking up a place in the Heineken Cup (next season)," he says. "It's a great opportunity. But we know it's a very tough place to go – and I know it especially – and they are the reining European champions. In my opinion we are going to play against not the best Amlin Cup team but the best European team – or one of the best. So it's a huge, huge ask for us but we are in a good dynamic because we've won the last four games before losing to Biarritz last weekend with players who won't be in the Amlin final."

This stage of the competition is a familiar one for French clubs. Only four of the 16 Challenge Cup finals have not featured a French team, but their success rate has been ordinary – Biarritz's win last season was the first for a French side since Clermont in 2007 – and their appetite questionable.

Are Stade really that excited about getting into the Heineken Cup next season? They are in the process of losing their coach, Christophe Lassucq, whose exit is a bit different to Joe Schmidt's from Leinster. Indeed there is a cleanout under way on the coaching staff and not only would you wonder about their preparation in such circumstances, but also what their target will be for next season: to re-establish themselves in the upper echelons of the Top 14, or to fight a war on two fronts, domestic and European. We'd suggest a European campaign would be something they are careful not to wish for.

They bring some good stats to the game, like being the only side in Europe with a set-piece that has a success rate over 90 per cent. Certainly their scrum is solid – Stan Wright tells us he's dropped a few pounds and is running around like a good thing – but with a lineout that throws often to the front your stats out of touch tend to be impressive.

True, as Contepomi points out, they put together a run of four wins before sending the second string to Biarritz last weekend, but if they hadn't got out of their pool thanks to Grenoble being docked points for an administrative cock-up, they would already be on their holidays. And if by the fourth quarter on Friday night they don't look that way – on an end-of-season jolly – then it will be an achievement.

By comparison, Leinster will be men possessed, not least their scrumhalf. Isaac Boss was unlucky enough to fail fitness tests for last season's Heineken Cup final and the previous year's Magners League final so his first target this week is to get to the starting gate in one piece. And then reminding Joe Schmidt that despite his 33rd birthday arriving a couple of weeks ago, he is playing as well as ever. It was a message that rarely registered with Declan Kidney.

"Definitely – as soon as a new coach comes in everybody is rejuvenated," Boss says. "Hopefully if

they haven't been getting a look-in that they can get into this coach's mind frame. I've just got to concentrate on my own form. There is a lot of good young scrumhalves coming through. I've to worry moreso about trying to stay in the Leinster set-up, you have guys coming through in John Cooney and you saw Luke McGrath last week as well. I just enjoy playing at as high a level as I can and put myself in a position to be picked, and if I do I'm happy enough."

The notion that Leinster are a bunch of off-the-cuff entertainers, who bring a blank canvas to every game, is something he's keen to knock back.

"If you go and do your freedom and stuff up, you have to be held accountable. That's a big thing of it too, accountability, in your own job, your own role, your skills and stuff.

"He's (Schmidt) a big believer that for the guy scoring the try it's been created by everyone doing their lines right, cleaning out the player right. He's real picky with those little things, and I think that shows in some of the nice team tries we've scored.

"I think guys soon buy into it when they know that's how they have to play to fit into this environment. He took no nonsense from the start – it didn't matter if you were the newest guy in or the oldest guy there, you know, he's pulling guys up and they didn't react badly to it at all. He knows he can get better out of us, and it's definitely been key."

You can believe that all right.

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