Thursday 14 December 2017

Blues must want it more than French rivals

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If the route to Edinburgh and outright success in 2009 was tough for Leinster, well two years on, it's all of that and quite a bit again. It's a measure of the increasing level of intensity of the Heineken Cup that the '09 champions' path to today's semi-final showdown at the Aviva Stadium has been rugged in the extreme.

Home and away against Racing Metro, Clermont Auvergne and Saracens, followed by do-or-die matches against Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-outs, there could not be a more difficult path to the final for Leo Cullen & Co should they make it -- with due respect to Northampton and Perpignan, who meet in the second semi-final tomorrow.

For the record, two years ago it was Wasps, Edinburgh and Castres, followed by Harlequins (Bloodgate and the day Leinster Rugby came of age), Munster and Leicester in that order. Winning (6-5) in a slug fest at the Stoop, followed by the annihilation of Munster at Croke Park and the systematic dismantling of Leicester in the Murrayfield final, saw Leinster cross the Rubicon and join European rugby's elite.

And despite last year's disappointment, losing at the penultimate stage to today's opposition, Leinster, under Joe Schmidt, have come back stronger and better equipped than ever before.


Schmidt's input to Leinster has been enormous, with the timing of his arrival, allied to his style of coaching, perfect in every way. I remember having a conversation with Frank O'Driscoll back in August and him telling me how his son Brian and the rest of the more seasoned players were reinvigorated by Schmidt in both his emphasis and variety, through match- appropriate ball-handling drills in training.

Michael Cheika played his part in creating a hard edge to Leinster which was previously missing. Schmidt has built on that essential platform and has taken it on to another level. Much has been made of the part played by consultant scrum coach Greg Feek since his arrival and rightly so (with Cian Healy and Mike Ross now the shoo-in pillars to the national team), but the common denominator in transition from exciting competitor to pragmatic winner has been forwards coach Jono Gibbes.

Much like defence coach Kurt McQuilkin (now back in his native New Zealand), the Gibbes' stamp of intensity is identifiable in each and every big-match performance; the bigger the occasion the greater the response. So much for Leinster's 'Ladyboys' tag of old. The Blues, as currently constituted, represent the real deal and as described by Toulouse coach Guy Noves in the build-up, is to all intents and purposes "the complete unit".

Quite whether it's enough to see them through European rugby's greatest exponents we will not know until later today, but what is guaranteed is that four-time winners Toulouse will turn up in D4 with their 'A' game in best working order.

It will be the ninth Heineken Cup meeting between the sides, with Toulouse 5-3 ahead to date. Not only have the French aristocrats won more titles than any other team, but they have played in more finals (six), more semi-finals (10) and more Heineken Cup matches (117) than any other. They are the Real Madrid in rugby's equivalent to the Champions League.

They took the clash that really mattered 12 months ago every bit as comfortably as the 10-point winning margin (26-16) suggests.

The clash that most Leinster folk remember most fondly is, of course, the remarkable April Fools' Day quarter-final in 2006, when Keith Gleeson and the Leinster backline ran riot in a 41-35 extravaganza.

I was a sceptical killjoy back then for the simple reason that much like our property bubble, that victory was built on the flimsiest of bases. Only Jamie Heaslip remains of that forward unit.

Munster ran riot in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road that followed. But that was then, this is now and although Leinster have but four still on board (Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in addition to Heaslip) to Toulouse's 12, this is a different Leinster animal entirely.

It does not guarantee that they will claim victory, but it does ensure that whatever Toulouse get they will earn. Both teams have come much too far now to blow it with a below par performance.

For Leinster, it's about getting the simple things right. The Toulouse set-piece is strong, with the challenge to Leinster that they must match it. Parity in the scrum and equality in possession out of touch, will provide sufficient ammunition for Leinster's total modus operandi to take effect.

It's a full-blooded international in all but name. The Toulouse squad boasts 26 full-blown Test players with 17 from France alone; for Leinster the stats read 21 and 16. This is the Real McCoy. The two best teams in Europe going head-to-head and only one team can make the final at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, so something has got to give at the Aviva, which will be heaving with atmosphere.

On little things do big matches swing, whether it's a touch of genius or an individual error -- the margins will be that tight. If both turn up at full tilt, as I suspect they will, then it could come down to either impact off the bench -- and here Leinster must beware -- or home advantage and the input of the 16th man to see the Blues home. The Aviva Factor may be still new, but as witnessed against Munster, Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers, when it was most needed in the quarter-final, it certainly came to the fore with a bang.

In 2003, Leinster appeared set by way of home advantage in all three knock-out rounds and yet they let it slip against Perpignan in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road, with Trevor Brennan and Toulouse eventually going on to take the all- French Dublin showdown 22-17.

Lessons have been learned the hard and painful way -- but there's no guarantee that they won't be repeated again now. It will therefore come down to attitude, to collective psyche and to individual work-ethic from kick-off to final whistle. Toulouse, like all great French sides travel well, so dismiss the nonsensical notion that they are poor away from home. But in the final analysis, it will come down to which side wants it more.

Providing Leinster match Toulouse in desire, secure sufficient primary possession to enable Jonathan Sexton to do what he does best and make sure they are effective without the ball, the essential ingredients are in place to reverse the crushing disappoint-ment of last year's semi-final defeat.

There may be but the kick of a ball in it at the death, but with the home team better prepared than they were for the quarter-final, take Leinster to edge it. Just.

Leinster by three.

With Leinster and Munster but one game away from Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals and with Munster, Leinster and Ulster dominating the Magners League, Irish rugby is in pretty good shape in this World Cup year.

Without wishing to lose the run of ourselves, that feel-good factor was added to appreciably over the Easter weekend when Terry McMaster's Schools team lifted the FIRA AER U-18 final after beating mighty England every bit as convincingly as the 17-8 scoreline suggests.

It was a remarkable turnaround and great credit to McMaster and his players, given the 29-12 loss to the same opposition at Donnybrook back in December.

Talismanic skipper Luke McGrath again led the way, but it was the collective power of the Gordon Frayne, Bryan Byrne, Edward Byrne all Clongowes front-row which laid the forward foundation, which was aided and abetted by brilliant St Michael's flanker Dan Leavy.

In truth, it's probably unfair to single out individuals for on this impressive evidence, the immediate and long-term future of Irish rugby is in pretty good hands.

Well done to head coach McMaster, to manager Lorcan Balfe and to everyone else concerned on a first ever championship victory at this level.

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