Saturday 24 March 2018

Leinster will take comfort from fortress Lansdowne

Isa Nacewa on the rampage for Leinster during their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa on the rampage for Leinster during their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium last year. Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster will take comfort and encouragement from their outstanding record of eight matches unbeaten at the Aviva Stadium when they play Clermont in the Heineken Cup on Saturday afternoon.

Five of those victories have been in the Heineken Cup. They also scalped Munster three times in different Celtic League campaigns. The Aviva Stadium is to Leinster what his Fortress of Solitude was to Superman.

It is from where they derive their aura of invincibility. Donnybrook will always be their spiritual home – as Krypton was to the caped superhero – but their real strength comes from the numbers that swell Ireland's premier rugby ground.

The old Lansdowne Road was a very different beast of a stadium. It was unique to Ireland. What Irish players saw as 'old school' charm was, possibly, a culture shock to the elite athletes from other nations. In a sense it had its own intimidating factors for those used to more comfortable surrounds.

In recent years, old concrete floors, rickety floorboards and spitting showers have been replaced by more palatial surroundings.

The pitch, once described as "a field" by internationals from both soccer and rugby codes, is now a pitch more suited to the professional athletes who ply their trade on its surface.

The Celtic Tiger years brought a lot of change to this country, especially in sport. The spectacular Aviva Stadium is one of the few permanent successes of those ambitious years.

But while the facade and interior have changed, the heart and soul have remained true to the old values and embrace the genuine spirit of the past.

Leinster have been magnificently successful in harnessing the raw power of the Aviva crowd to use to their advantage. Their raucous and enthusiastic fans play a big part in scaring the daylights out of the opposition.

Clermont experienced it two years ago and now they are back in circumstances that are eerily similar. On that occasion Leinster departed the Stade Marcel Michelin with a losing bonus point after going down to Clermont 20-13 in heroic fashion – Shane Jennings was narrowly denied a game-changing try in the last quarter of a game Leinster dominated.

Afterwards Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was philosophical: "I thought we did enough to win, but the losing bonus point could be important at the end of the pool stages, so we'll take it... We'll get on with our recovery over the next two days and get ready for what will be the 'fever' next weekend."

His words were prophetic. Six days later the French team entered the cauldron that was the Aviva, took one look at the sea of blue, realised how futile their challenge was going to be in such environs and were soundly defeated on a 24-8 scoreline.

Leinster harness the power of the atmosphere generated by a full-house Aviva Stadium to perfection.

They feed off it and take inspiration from it. Their results speak for themselves.

The dimensions of the pitch, the fact that it is wide enough for them to play their special brand of expansive and aesthetically gorgeous rugby helps, but the support of their fans is one of the most devastating weapons in their arsenal.


It's a weapon they'll be unleashing this weekend again with team manager Guy Easterby emphasising just how important the supporters will be to the outcome.

"The crowd will have a big part to play at the weekend, as it has in the past at the Aviva," said Easterby ahead of Leinster's squad session yesterday,

"Hopefully, it's another massive game hopefully in front of a sell-out crowd for us because we'll need every ounce of support we can muster.

"We've lost the away game and need to make sure we win this home game.

"We must make sure that we get ourselves right, prepare properly in training for the week and make the fact that we're at home count as an advantage, which I'm sure it will."

That day two years ago, Leinster's supporters played a significant role when Clermont were tanned. Cian Healy scored a brace of tries and remembered the crowd more than anything specific about the game.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable. There was so much passion in the fans again," said Healy.

The attendance at the Aviva Stadium is set to top the record breaking 46,365 who turned up for the slaying of Bath in the corresponding round last season. It's a remarkable achievement at a time when match attendance figures are dropping across every sporting code.

Leinster are a special team in pursuit of a special achievement.

They have three gold stars embroidered on their jerseys and are seeking a fourth. More importantly, though, they are attempting to create a piece of unique sporting history and win three consecutive titles.

To keep their quest alive, it's essential they win Saturday's game.

And to do that, as emphasised by Easterby, they will look again to the packed stands, swathed in blue, for inspiration.

Irish Independent

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