Wednesday 24 January 2018

Any which way but lose key to Leinster's Euro progress

"I didn't come back to win a bloody Munster title. I came back to win the All-Ireland" – Cork hurler and multiple All Star winner Brian Corcoran, Semple Stadium dressing-room, 2004

LEINSTER won't care where they finish in their Heineken Cup pool, first or second, as long as they progress to the knockout stages of the competition.

If they do finish second, they might well take a look at how the likes of Kilkenny and Cork reacted in seasons they were beaten in provincial finals and yet went on to win All-Ireland titles.

Cork hurler Brian Corcoran summed it up when he was faced with that situation after he came out of retirement for the 2004 season.

Those he joined in the Cork dressing-room that year had heard – some had watched – about his past deeds.

They listened and were regaled with the tale of how he stood up to Kilkenny's John Power in the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final and how he inspired Cork to an unlikely victory.

His return for the 2004 season galvanised the team. They had a rallying figure.

They knew the stories of his genius were real when he scored a point off his knees against Limerick in that year's Munster semi-final.

Suffice to say, when he addressed that group of men in Semple Stadium, they listened.

"It brought it home to us, probably for the first time, that you could lose a Munster Championship game and still contest – and ultimately win – the All-Ireland final," recalled Cork's Tom Kenny of that 2004 experience.

It doesn't matter how you get there, just that you cross the line. It didn't matter a damn to Cork that they had lost the Munster final, just as it didn't matter to Kilkenny when they lost the Leinster final to Galway this year before going on to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

And it won't matter in the slightest to Leinster where they eventually finish in the pool as long as they progress to the knockout stages.

"We were aware of the back-door, of course, but we were a new team," said Kenny. "It was our first year together and we won the 2003 Munster final. The 2004 season was our first time experiencing it first hand. And when Brian spoke that day, it certainly focused our minds as regards the professional approach needed for the circumstances."

Leinster can, of course, still top their Heineken Cup pool. They are five points off Clermont going into this weekend's return fixture. A four-try haul, while winning by more than seven points, would erase the deficit in its entirety.

For most teams, that would be an utterly fanciful notion. For Leinster playing in the Aviva in front of 46,000 fanatic supporters willing them on, it's a case of Mission Implausible rather than Mission Impossible.

Leinster do need to win tomorrow, though.

And if they do and then win their remaining two games in the pool against Exeter and Llanelli Scarlets, there is every chance they will progress to the quarter-finals as one of the two best runners-up.

Teams have won the Heineken Cup after losing in the pool stages. What no team has ever done, though, is go on to win the tournament without first topping their pool.

It's not something that will occupy their minds at present – or, indeed, for the season – but would be a badge of honour on reflection, according to Shane Horgan.

"The carrot for the players, if such a scenario presented itself, would be going on to win the tournament the hard way by not having a home quarter or perhaps even semi-final," said Horgan.

"That might appeal to them. But it would be more of an 'add-on' thing for them and they certainly won't have discussed the what-ifs of different results and permutations.

"All they're thinking about is winning their next game, which happens to be Clermont in the Aviva."

If Leinster don't top their pool and still go through, then they will have to navigate an away quarter-final.

But even if they do win tomorrow, Shane Byrne would still caution temperance. Exeter away is a game he is also concerned about.

"They will be tough opposition, over there especially," he said.

"All the focus is on Clermont this weekend, which it has to be. But Exeter are capable of anything too. This is an exceptionally tough pool and I think that Exeter game will be very telling too."

Connacht's win over Biarritz last weekend has, Byrne believes, opened up one of those coveted runners-up spots for Leinster's pool.

But he also believes that Leinster will simply be focused on winning this weekend. They will be particularly aggrieved at losing last weekend's game and will still view it as the one that got away.

"Clermont were determined to humiliate an understrength Leinster side and came up way short. That will, I believe, have rattled them ahead of this weekend's game. Leinster know they left points behind them last week, which is very important to their mindset."

That, along with a raucous Aviva crowd, could be the inspiration they need tomorrow.

"Of course, you're aware of the noise and the support. It would be impossible not to be," said Byrne.

"Where it becomes especially useful is when it sort of creeps up on you. You make a tackle and the roar of approval follows. That gives you a surge of energy.

"Leinster will, I am certain, have something up their sleeve for this weekend. It's win at all costs now, which is how they'll approach the rest of the competition.

"That's the mentality that will drive them no matter where they finish in the pool and how they qualify for the knockout stages.

"Their goal will be to win every game between now and the end of the season.

"It's as simple as that."

Irish Independent

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