Monday 26 August 2019

How the drive for five began

Review

Leinster’s Gordon D’Arcy celebrates after scoring a try during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-fianl while (R) Johnny Sexton gives Munster’s Ronan O’Gara an earful at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Gordon D’Arcy celebrates after scoring a try during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-fianl while (R) Johnny Sexton gives Munster’s Ronan O’Gara an earful at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Back-to-back defeats to Castres and Wasps - two teams they had already convincingly beaten at home - gave Leinster's 2009 Heineken Cup campaign a familiar gloomy feeling.

Despite a widespread sense that they had assembled a squad that was as strong as anything the club had ever had, Leinster had flattered to deceive on the European stage.

The previous season, they failed to emerge from the pool and when their early momentum was punctured by two losses, it looked for all the world that it was going to be another case of deja-vu.

Michael Cheika had been in the club four years and although the Australian had delivered a league in 2008, Leinster were desperate to win the Heineken Cup.

Their frustrations weren't helped by watching Munster claim their second European crown and when Cheika's side lost to Wasps, little did they know that the journey they were on would eventually lead to the holy grail.

"I remember the Castres game away, when we were winning handy and lost - it was mayhem," Leinster CEO Mick Dawson recalls.

"At the time, this team hadn't achieved an awful lot. We had won the Magners League the year before but there had been a lot of really good Irish players like Brian O'Driscoll, Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan, who had been around for a long time and probably hadn't achieved the heights that they thought they might achieve.

"We were (made out to be) the worst team in the world again after we lost to Castres. That defeat meant that if we got out of our pool, we weren't going to get a home quarter-final, so we went away to Harlequins."

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A narrow win against Edinburgh in the final pool game meant that Leinster finished top, but they were on the road to London again in the last eight.

That notorious game against Harlequins will forever be remembered for the 'Bloodgate' scandal as Leinster scraped through 6-5. Again, they did so without really impressing enough for people to truly believe that they were genuine title contenders.

There were plenty of potential turning points that year, but for Shane Jennings, it went back to the previous season.

Jennings had just returned from a two-year stint with Leicester Tigers, where their winning mentality became ingrained in him, and with Cheika having changed the culture both on and off the pitch at Leinster, Jennings, who won 13 caps for Ireland, sensed that the club was on the verge of something special.

"A year previous to winning the Heineken Cup, we went over the Llanelli - a place we normally didn't do well," Jennings remembers.

"It was a dirty night and we rolled up our sleeves and got the win in difficult conditions. It was a bit of an epiphany. I realised the group had a bit of steel and an edge.

"We weren't perfect, don't get me wrong, but from where we were to where we were after that game, it was progress. We showed the characteristics of a team that could just roll up their sleeves and win, which we hadn't done before."

That doggedness came to the fore throughout the pool stage and during the quarter-final win over 'Quins, which set up a mouthwatering showdown with Munster at Croke Park.

With 82,208 supporters crammed into the GAA's HQ, as a spectacle for Irish rugby, this was as good as it got.

The defending champions arrived in Dublin as favourites, but what transpired was a ruthless changing of the guard.

"It was an iconic moment for Leinster in the sense because in 2006, when we played Munster in Lansdowne Road, the Munster supporters had completely outnumbered, out-coloured us, had done everything," Dawson maintains.

"I think that was a seminal moment for us because people said if we are going to support the team against Munster, we need to dress up and show our colours.

"We made a big effort to make sure that the tickets fell into Leinster hands.

"Our supporters had learned that lesson as well. Everyone was acutely aware of it. We didn't have to bang on doors.

"We were serious underdogs. People felt that if Munster turned up, they would win.

"One of the interesting things was: I remember the atmosphere in the dressing room afterwards was muted. Michael Cheika wanted to keep it like that.

"Beating Munster in Croke Park wouldn't have meant an awful lot if we had lost the final. The whole mood changed to the final as opposed to celebrating a victory over Munster, which is always nice."

Leinster stunned their arch rivals on that unforgettable day. Tries from Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O'Driscoll helped them to a 25-6 win, while Johnny Sexton announced his arrival.

"The focus, and I think I speak on behalf of the team, was incredible," Jennings says.

"On Tuesday, we were ready to play. Genuinely we were ready to go. We had everything dialled in, our moves were set, our strategy was set, our plan was set and mentally we were ready.

Preparation

"We had done a lot of mental preparation work. Enda McNulty (performance coach) had come in and worked with us a group and as individuals.

"Cheika had driven a lot of that in terms of getting people from around the province in and tell us what it meant to them - what it meant to be a Meath footballer or a Kilkenny hurler or a boxer who was based out of wherever.

"We had a real closed rank kind of mindset in terms of, 'We have control over this and we have to put a stamp on it.'

"I think that came out in the performance. We were dialled in. We executed what we wanted to do and I think emotionally we were where we needed to be against a really good Munster team.

"If we had lost that game, this club would have gone back a lot of steps. Thankfully, we didn't and it helped us kick on.

"Immediately after the game, we said that if we had beaten the likes of Munster in a Heineken Cup semi-final and we don't go on to win it, we are the biggest mugs you have ever come across."

This was Leinster's time and they didn't disappoint. A much-fancied Leicester outfit was suddenly all that stood in the way of them and their first Heineken Cup.

That doggedness was evident again as Leinster ran out 19-16 winners to reach the promised land.

Jamie Heaslip got over for a crucial try after the break with Sexton steering the ship in the number 10 jersey that he has since gone on to make his own over the last 10 years.

"I remember Enda McNulty came out with a line about Kobe Bryant," Jennings adds. "He was saying, 'He's hungry, every time he wins something, he doesn't want someone else to win it.'

"And you could look at that with the likes of the Kilkenny hurlers and the way they go on about it being their trophy.

"We weren't there yet in '09 but we had worked on that mindset about being greedy and being selfish and hungry for success.

"I think you are probably seeing a bit of that today in terms of the culture that was developed after the '09 win.

"I am genuinely so happy and so proud to be part of Leinster and our success when we were starting it in '09.

"We added to the club and now these young men are adding to it by winning trophies. It brings back nice memories because you can say, 'We did that as well'."

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