Wednesday 25 April 2018

Healy: Watching our rivals dominate Europe has been a 'brutal' experience

Cian Healy goes through his paces in training ahead of Sunday’s clash with Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Healy goes through his paces in training ahead of Sunday’s clash with Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The vanguard is shrinking, but there are enough members of the glorious Leinster era to remind the young 'uns of what is expected and what can be achieved.

Their 2012 victory over Ulster in Twickenham doesn't feel that long ago and yet five seasons have come and gone without another Champions Cup success. Their last PRO14 title came in 2014.

By Leinster's greedy standards, it constitutes something of a famine. Between 2008 and 2014 they hoovered up silverware on an annual basis, collecting three leagues, three European titles and a Challenge Cup in a period they will always reflect on with fondness.

Sporting dynasties do not last and Leinster's power has faded.

They have not been back to a final since they hammered Ulster in London, reaching the semi-finals twice only to run aground against Toulon and Clermont, with Toulon also ending their ambitions at the quarter-final stage in 2014.

The new breed watched the elder statesmen dominate Europe and look ready to fire them back to the top.

For those who remain from the glory days, there is a sense of making up for lost time.

On Easter Sunday, they have a chance to make a real statement of intent. Saracens have dominated this competition for the past two seasons and have not lost a quarter-final since 2011.

Cian Healy is one of those with medals gathering dust, eager to add something fresh to the collection after claiming the Grand Slam earlier this month.

Watching Toulon win three in a row, before Sarries claimed consecutive Champions Cups, has not gone down well. "It's tough seeing teams doing that, taking prizes when you want to be taking them," he admits.

"You always do want to take the people at the top. It was kind of nice seeing that draw come through, seeing us end up with them.

"There were a few laughs about it, you finish top (of your pool) and you end up with Sarries. That's the way you want to go, if you want to get to the top of this, you have to beat the best.

Easy

"You don't want to be looking for an easy route."

The lean years have created a firm desire within the Leinster dressing-room, according to the experienced prop.

"It's pretty brutal," he says.

"It makes you want to get back to it again. It does create that burn, but you can't create that burn in two weeks. You have to create that burn throughout the whole squad.

"Everyone, not just you, has to be on that level. We have a squad now who, only a handful of lads have a couple of cups, and everyone else has gotten into a bit of a winning mentality and they're saying, 'The next step for us now is to go get a cup'.

"It's a good place to be in."

Along with Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton, Seán Cronin, Devin Toner and, injury permitting, Seán O'Brien and Fergus McFadden, the loosehead prop is the experienced arm of a much-lauded Leinster squad packed with young, exciting talent.

What they lack in silverware, they make up in enthusiasm and self-belief, according to Healy.

"We don't have a hell of a lot of lads left that have won that cup," he concedes.

"There's a few of us left in there so it's new to them. There is a winning mentality in those younger lads, you have the likes of 'Cheese' (James Ryan) that hasn't lost a professional game.

"That's what they are bringing to it. They have this expectancy and we have to push that on in what we deliver and what we expect of them in training.

"You have to understand that that just doesn't happen. We will all be pushing each other on."

Now 30 and having returned to his best form having overcome a career-threatening neck injury, Healy is relishing the chance to win things again and take on the best teams with the stakes high.

"It's another step up, especially when it gets to knockout rugby. The knockout is where the rugby drags the best out in players. Even how you are playing moves, you have to be that bit more accurate to get through defences. Everyone is a little bit more highly attuned. It's fun though.

"It's not a, 'ah we lose this we've another chance'. It's do-or-die, heart-on-the-sleeve rugby. It's the most fun type of rugby to play."

Fun is an interesting word and when Healy drills down into the experience itself, he admits that the fun comes after the work.

"Test rugby is similar, if you want to do what we did (win the Grand Slam), you have to consider that knockout rugby. You can't lose a game.

Stress

"Rugby where you're under the most stress and pressure to perform and everything's high-octane, that's far more fun than a league game. You can't approach a league game as knockout rugby.

"You smile after it. That's the moments that you play for, for those 40 minutes or an hour in the changing-rooms after having the craic.

"With this, OK you do that (win) but it's not done. So you're not on the beers in the changing-room, you're just enjoying yourself and move on to the next one.

"Come, hopefully, Bilbao we'll get a few beers in the changing-room then."

The road to the Basque city was paved in the pool where Leinster went unbeaten, but Healy says that counts for little this week.

"You just start at zero," he said. "This is different, this is knockout rugby. We have to start like we are at the bottom, slog away and get as structurally sound as we can."

Irish Independent

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