Tuesday 21 May 2019

Alan Quinlan on Leinster v Saracens: Pre-match tears, ticket requests and staring at the hotel ceiling - It's impossible to ignore the buzz

Tadhg Furlong, left, Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton and Jack McGrath celebrate last year
Tadhg Furlong, left, Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton and Jack McGrath celebrate last year
The Leinster coaching brains-trust of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster look on during the Captain’s Run. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Lying flat on my bed, I was revelling in the bizarre sense of calm in the room. Ronan O'Gara was just a few feet away, in a similar state of zen, also feeling utterly content. This wasn't the norm.

About 18 hours later we were due to run out at the Millennium Stadium and measure ourselves against Europe's most successful side, the top team in France that season, an outfit that contained future and already-established rugby royalty like Fabien Pelous, Thierry Dusatoir, Byron Kelleher, Maxime Medard, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Cedric Heymans, Yannick Nyanga and Yannick Jauzion.

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But we were Munster. This was our fourth final. We had lived, breathed and digested the worst and best of these days.

We were prepared for every eventuality but were also supremely confident in our own abilities and in the skills of the men around us.

We could cause the opposition all sorts of problems in 2008. If the traditional Munster method wasn't working - or even if it was no longer the most efficient avenue of attack - we could feed the ball out to the likes of Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Dougie Howlett to test your limits in a number of different ways.

That certainly helped calm the pre-match nerves 11 years ago this month - something I suffered with acutely throughout my career - but the experience of playing in European finals was the primary source of peace in Cardiff that night.

Eight years previous to that I had been staring at a similar hotel room ceiling in London, frantically searching for answers to the questions buzzing around my brain while the stomach butterflies worked overtime.

We were all the same; wound up to maximum tension, all sorts of permutations running through our heads.

Emotions were high all week. It was our first Heineken Cup final, and we were favourites to lift the trophy after seeing off Stade Francais and Toulouse in the knockout stages and beating Saracens home and away in the pool.

Purpose

The night before that final against Northampton, Declan Kidney called a team meeting, the purpose of which was for each player to outline what the province meant to him.

It was an attempt to gel us together even closer, to finally leave our bitter club rivalries in the past as we plotted a way forward in the professional era with Munster.

Deep discussions and some tears followed, the enormity of the occasion and the unknowns that it brought sucking us into a draining vortex of emotion.

If we had come out on the right side of the 9-8 scoreline the next day at Twickenham, the meeting may have been hailed a masterstroke by Deccie - much like the now-famous Enfield engagement with the Ireland squad in December 2008 - but the result dictated that it would not become part of our warm-up routine for the biggest day in European club rugby.

We didn't lose that first final because of the outpouring of emotion the night before, but it was symbolic of where we were at that week; which was nowhere close to our normal pitch.

Staying calm and level-headed is one of the hardest things to manage when you are in new territory, a common struggle you find across all levels of sport.

It's easy to spout lines such as 'just treat it like any other week', but until you are in that 'Truman Show' bubble in the build-up to a final, it's very difficult to appreciate the added challenges that games like this throw at you. A player might want to prepare for a European final as he would a pre-season friendly, but everyone else certainly doesn't.

Extra media duties need to be fulfilled, ticket requests and good-luck messages flood your inboxes. Everyone you meet on the street or in the shop wants to talk about the game.

It's impossible to ignore the buzz. It was tough trying to block it all out, and this was before on-demand selfies became par for the course too.

I was lucky enough to be involved in four finals as a player and had very different experiences in each; an unused substitute in the 2000 loss to Northampton, at blindside in the 2002 Leicester defeat, the happiest substitute in history when I got four minutes at the end of the 2006 Biarritz win on my return from an ACL injury, and back on the blindside for the 2008 success against Toulouse.

And yet, for me, I had to reach a fourth final to really feel comfortable with the occasion.

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Nerves shouldn't be a major factor this evening as the majority of the players who take the field have sampled this occasion at least once before - very few of them actually know what it feels like to lose one, but 23 players will wake up with that awful emptiness tomorrow morning.

The external factors that often rattle teams on big days such as this should be less relevant, but that doesn't make this game any easier to call.

Both of these sides expect to win every match they play; giving this contest an 'unstoppable force v immovable object' feel to it.

As a Munster man, it is hard to be truly neutral in any match that Leinster contest - and I would expect the same from my peers whose entire life has been intertwined with rugby in our rival province.

Having said that, and I find it weird even writing these words, I will be cheering for Leo Cullen's side this evening.

I'm not discarding years of intense clashes into the burning pit of time, it's merely a reflection of my deep dislike for Saracens and the way they conduct their business on and off the field.

Heavy

They have always felt a bit manufactured, a bit hollow. And what's more, they seem to love being cast as the villain; it emboldens them and reinforces the fibres that bind them all together.

Mark McCall is a bloke I always liked, going back to being involved together in Ireland squads, but the huge debts, the heavy overseas recruitment, salary-cap inquiries and negative style of play make his side, one of the two best teams in Europe, very difficult to like.

I respect what they have achieved, domestically and in Europe, but the way they have done that doesn't exactly warm me to them.

In this particular blockbuster, the largely home-grown Leinster side are not only the reigning champions but the natural heroes of the piece, the last line of defence that can foil these bully boys from Saracens who love to suffocate opponents with brute force and repeated kicking despite possessing some of the best backs in the European club game.

If Leinster can match them physically then they should have enough ability elsewhere to edge this.

But just like the rest of the advice being thrown around ahead of a European final, it's much easier said than done.

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