Thursday 27 June 2019

Comment: Stadium issue must still be addressed but Leinster are primed for a long spell at the top of European game


Leinster lock James Ryan wins a lineout during their 15-12 victory against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster lock James Ryan wins a lineout during their 15-12 victory against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In late January 2005 Leicester Tigers went to Calvisano looking for a bucket-load of tries in their bid to make the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. Although they had missed out on the knockouts the previous season, Tigers were very much one of the competition's elite clubs. Sure enough, they unloaded on the Italians, but it was only on the flight out of Milan that they got the news of their opponents in the quarter-final: a trip to Leinster, six from six in their pool campaign, in what would be a virtually full Lansdowne Road. The Leicester players whooped and hollered like they had one foot in the semi-finals.

By the time April rolled around they hadn't lost any of their appetite. Domestically they were on the charge towards another Premiership title, and with back-to-back European Cups as recently as 2001 and 2002 they were clear about their goals. They arrived in Dublin ready for business.

Pre-match warm-ups can be misleading, but we well remember the degree of intensity the Tigers brought to their preparation that day in Lansdowne Road. It continued into the game. Leinster were bullied all over the park, and as we were pressing 'send' on our match reports the name of a senior figure in Irish rugby popped up on the phone's screen. This man had news regarding Leinster coach Declan Kidney. As in, he was on his way back to Munster.

It was the perfect storm: after an unbeaten pool run Leinster get emptied at home in yet another premature European campaign, and their coach walks after just one season. His predecessor, Gary Ella, had lasted the same amount of time. To cap it off, senior players Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings were leaving. For, eh, Leicester. Jaysus, how bad could it get?

In the tailspin that followed Kidney's announcement that he was heading back down the M8, Leinster CEO Mick Dawson asked assistant coach Gerry Murphy to stay on board and look at the playing side of the operation from the bottom up. Murphy had a lifetime's involvement in the game. A veteran of the amateur era, he had been assistant coach and head coach of Ireland in the early to mid-1990s, an era when Irish rugby couldn't find its own backside with both hands tied behind its back.

Despite those associations Murphy was widely respected for his knowledge of the game, and, blessed with an ego-bypass, he was well suited to look under the bonnet and make recommendations without a personal agenda.

Soon enough after the Kidney departure Murphy was sitting around a table in Long's pub in Donnybrook, alongside a handful of others at various levels of the organisation. Over the course of a wide-ranging discussion it was mentioned that Leinster could aim to be the Toulouse of Ireland. It got a few laughs, but nobody fell off their high stool either. After yesterday's events in San Mamés Stadium, Leinster stand alongside France's most illustrious club as the only four-time winners of the Heineken/Champions Cup. From a Donnybrook saloon to a super stadium in Bilbao, it all looks like a logical progression.

Even back in 2005 there were a few key points you couldn't dismiss - ones that gave Leinster advantages over a club who by then were about to win the Heineken Cup for the third time.

Operating in a capital city where there was no other professional franchise was a door-opener. Having a long tradition of rugby and a wide base of players were two more invites to the party. And having access to a range of stadia could get you a seat at the top table. But there was a whole heap of work to be done turning plus points into compelling arguments.

On an October night a year later the stadium story could have gone horribly, tragically wrong. Munster were in town for a Magners League game and while the crowd was recorded at an official record of 27,252, the real estimate was well over 30,000. Having seen a few hairy moments at close quarters on Hill 16, where the GAA dodged a whole hail of bullets fired by the Health & Safety Squad through the 1970s and '80s, this was something you would categorise as Grade A uncontrolled. There was a massive crush on Lansdowne Road where many turnstiles were closed, stewards were hard to find, and with a rapidly approaching kick-off time punters had a fair few pints on board, and zero patience.

Blessed to avoid carnage, it was confirmation that Leinster needed to get some control on their gates. In September 2005 they announced a deal with the RDS, but it was 2007 before it kicked in. The current impasse in the redevelopment of that stadium is a restraint on their development, but the clarity the move brought initially was an important step in developing the brand.

In tandem with that there was an intense focus on the grass roots. Getting the schools game to produce more players, and not just players with medals, was a slow process, for the two are by no means compatible. The politics of the schools game is shark tank stuff, but Leinster managed to keep the plan afloat.

As for the youth game, as delivered by the unloved relation - the clubs - a tour of the 12 counties confirmed that the facilities for producing bigger, faster and stronger athletes were basic. As in, basically awful. So sorting the schools and clubs, and having a fully functional academy to welcome the best from both strands, took a lot of hard work. The direction was to be under the banner of The Leinster Way, and its scale had to include the 12 counties. The names most readily associated with the effort include Gerry Murphy, Phil Lawlor, Collie McEntee and Richie Murphy.

It took a lot of facilitating from men in blazers and other men in suits, and its progress would be influenced by the enthusiasm of whichever man was at the top: the head coach. In the small window through which Leinster had to drag a replacement for Declan Kidney, they settled on the largely unknown Michael Cheika.

If his compatriot Gary Ella had been slow about coming forward, especially with Leinster's marquee names, then Cheika pulled the whole tent down and didn't give a toss about who got hurt in the process. The further we are removed from the Cheika era the more credit he gets for dragging everyone around him into the fast lane. Significantly his mind was open to the idea of using Academy players to learn on the job as well as on the training field.

If you compare him with Matt O'Connor, for example, they were worlds apart. O'Connor had the misfortune, in 2013, to succeed the record-breaking Joe Schmidt, and while his two seasons as coach yielded decent results - a PRO12 title and back-to-back seasons in Europe's knockouts (losing to winners Toulon in the quarters and then semis) - one senior player at the time memorably described O'Connor as "too much Leicester, not enough Leinster".

The decision to sack O'Connor in 2015 was interesting for it told you something about Leinster's ambition. There was frustration in the ranks below the head coach that, unlike Schmidt, he showed no interest in the Academy despite it having been clearly targeted as the supply line. The rationale beyond O'Connor's office was that it didn't make sense to be resurfacing the approach roads to the big house if the boss was going to lock the gates. With an eye to protecting the brand they ditched him, reasoning that continuing was only going to end in further damage.

Popping Leo Cullen and his team of greenhorns into the slot didn't work so well, however. Drafting former All Black coach Graham Henry in as a short-term consultant was recognition of that, but always had the appearance of a handy fishing holiday for a man who has seen and done it all.

Then they got lucky with Stuart Lancaster. Lucky that he was available; luckier still that his head had withstood the melting of his World Cup experience with England in 2015. It has been the near perfect marriage, blessed with the fruits of earlier labours: a supply of young talent that had become more a gush than a flow. Crowning it with silverware yesterday was important for Cullen and Lancaster, and Leinster's ability to think their way out of a mess.

When they look out the window of the trophy room now the only blot on the landscape is the stadium. The chronology is that in 2014 Leinster and the RDS announced the grand plan to upscale the arena from its 18,500 capacity to 25,000, and all going well they'd be starting on the Anglesea side of the ground by spring 2016. How fitting if yesterday's success in Bilbao could have had a homecoming in the remodelled stadium.

Instead, here we are slipping in to summer 2018 and no progress. The impasse highlights both the strength and the weakness of the Leinster model. Spared the cost of bricks and mortar in building their own house, they can spend on other stuff, secure in the knowledge they have a long-term tenancy deal with the RDS. A new year 20-year contract will kick off if the grand plan works out. The problem is that building an extension is solely an issue for the landlord, so Leinster have no control over when that happens. Or if.

At its simplest, the RDS will not be moving this project forward without Government help. If the IRFU bid for the 2023 World Cup had worked out we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead, funding hinges initially on being able to meet the criteria of the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund - announced last October by Shane Ross, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. His department are currently writing up the terms and conditions of that fund, described at the time by Ross as a "Grand Project".

Those details are expected to be finalised this month, so if the RDS can meet the criteria they then whack in their application pronto. By the time the Government's Budget is being announced next November the picture will clear, at which point it's either crack on or go back to the drawing board.

This uncertainty sits awkwardly with the other half of Leinster's facilities portfolio: their training base. In partnering with UCD, who can share in the sports medicine knowledge created by a professional rugby outfit, Leinster are going down a route explored by others in the sport, and indeed other codes. In this case Leinster got a pitch along with a site for a new headquarters - free, gratis and for nothing. Then they tapped up private money to develop that HQ as a modern, highly functional building that serves every side of the operation.

So day to day Leinster want for nothing. They have Energia as a naming partner in Donnybrook; Laya Healthcare in the wings - and getting cold - waiting for the new RDS to be delivered; and adidas - who only do business with top brands - coming on a five-year deal that, between cash and kit, will yield more than €3m before bonuses.

On match days at home they drive five minutes to the RDS, which is not a perfect set-up but it's a big chunk of real estate that allows families to enjoy the match day experience to the full. And its location is dreamland stuff. Then on the really big match days they drive a further three minutes along the road to the Aviva, the shiny, modern face of the old gaff where they had their brush with disaster all those years ago.

The trick with the Aviva is not to try and tear the backside out of it. It costs circa €400k to open the gates and turn the lights on so unless you're expecting a crowd in excess of 30,000 don't bother. By this stage Leinster can read the tea leaves themselves. So even though Saturday's Guinness PRO14 semi-final tie features the new European champions against their deadliest domestic rivals - the side whose supporters not so long ago referred to Leinster as ladyboys - it made more sense to stuff a few more seats into the RDS than have a 32,000 crowd rattling around a 52,000 stadium.

And what an afternoon that promises to be. Munster will arrive in the hope that time off this weekend, travel-free, sleeping in their own beds, and not going on the lash, will add up to a special performance to get them into the PRO14 final. And the home team? They have come a long way. Unlike their European successes in 2009, 2011 and 2012, this one was achieved against the backdrop of a changed landscape where four years ago Irish sides were written out of the picture by the financial clout of English and French clubs. They have coped remarkably well. The Tigers of 2005 were justifiably bullish about the prospect of Leinster in Lansdowne Road. It's unlikely they would be as keen now.

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