Sunday 22 September 2019

Leinster quartet hoping to join elite European club

Cian Healy
Cian Healy

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It is the most exclusive club in European rugby, but next week three Leinster players could swell the ranks of players who have collected four winner's medals if their team beat Racing 92 in Bilbao.

A fourth title would put the Irish province on par with Toulouse as the most successful club in European history and former Toulousains Frederic Michalak and Cedric Heymans are the only players to have won the tournament four times.

Indeed, nobody has yet won all four with the same club, meaning Cian Healy, Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner could make history in the Basque city.

Although seven Leinster players have the hat-trick of medals from their glorious period between 2009 and 2012, only that trio are still playing. Rob Kearney has two final appearances but missed the 2011 triumph through injury, while Seán O'Brien would be up for his fourth this year but for the shoulder operation that ended his season.

The rest of those with three medals have retired, leaving the quartet standing on the cusp of a little bit of history.

Heymans was just 18 when he was an unused sub as Brive lifted the 1997 title, before switching to Toulouse where he was again an unused replacement in 2003 before coming off the bench in the 2005 and 2010 showpieces as the French club became Europe's most successful side.

He was joined by Michalak who started the 2003 and 2005 finals, before moving to Toulon where he came on as a replacement in the 2013 and 2015 finals.

If Leo Cullen sticks largely with the same team that won the semi-final against Scarlets and Leinster win, then Sexton, Nacewa and Healy will become the first players to have started four winning finals.

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Healy's return to full form has been a big component in his side's success this year, while the return of Sexton and Nacewa - who both spent two years away since the 2012 success - has been pivotal in the re-emergence of the province as a force.

Nacewa started the 2009 and 2011 finals at full-back, before reverting to the wing in 2012, while Sexton was the starting out-half and Healy the loosehead in all three.

Toner was an unused replacement in 2009, but was introduced in the second and third successes. Of the 22 players named for Leinster's first final success in nine years ago, 16 have retired and three are part of the current management.

One of those is, of course, the former skipper Cullen, who would make his own piece of history if he guides the team to a fourth star. Already the most decorated captain in European rugby history, the former second-row would become the first person to coach and play on winning teams if they succeed in Bilbao.

Although he was captain in 1999 and lifted the trophy with David Humphries, injury prevented Mark McCall from playing a major role in Ulster's 1999 success and no other player has gone on to win the competition as a head coach.

If Racing win, their co-coach Laurent Travers would beat Cullen to that particular prize as he was hooker on the Brive side 21 years ago.

Success for Leinster would bring the total number of Irish European wins to seven, one behind the French and English clubs who have eight wins each.

If selected, scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park could also join a small club of eight players who have won the European Cup/Super Rugby double, following in Brad Thorn's foot-steps.

The 26-year-old Kiwi was a replacement when the Hurricanes lifted the trophy in 2016, before moving to Leinster months later.

Although he started the semi-final, the return of Luke McGrath to fitness may see him miss out however.

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