Sunday 25 February 2018

Leinster's European pedigree demands respect

Ian Madigan, Leinster, after the game
Ian Madigan, Leinster, after the game
David Kelly

David Kelly

PERHAPS it's the persistent memory of the elegance of Leinster's past achievements which prompts such weariness among so many of their faithful.

In the aftermath of a fitful occasion in Dublin 4, it was sometimes difficult to gauge who were the winners and losers.

At the final whistle, Bath coach Mike Ford collected his players in a huddle and resolutely reminded them that, even in defeat, they had sowed the seeds of many future victories.

At the same time, the winners were trudging wearily to the dressing-room, where their captain Jamie Heaslip would address his troops and instantly re-connect with the engagement of their next task in Europe.

His words resonated as if delivered in defeat; an acknowledgement that a repeat of this performance would not suffice at a semi-final.

But for Bath there was no tomorrow; merely wishful thinking of another grand - and, they hope, victorious - day out in the sun.

For the perennial championship side Leinster, the days of baked grass and azure skies are where they unfurl their credentials.

Bath departed dreaming wistfully of what might have been and how they could be better; on this day Leinster simply were better. Just. But then, just is often enough.

Aesthetic arguments raged into the mild Dublin air; some Leinster fans cling to a stoic insistence that the lack of quality from their side impugns their status as, now, one of the best four teams in Europe.

Their charge is that, while Leinster were forced for the third time in seven European ties to rely solely on Ian Madigan's boot, effervescent Bath lit up the sun-dappled glass bowl with some wondrous, inventive rugby.

But who won the ball game?

The neutral might well have wallowed in the English side's commitment to finding space and off-loading to supporting runners, yet few punters seemed willing to pay tribute to Leinster's enduring championship muscle memory which, once again, prolongs their stay in Europe.

Leinster were once where Bath are now; producing such scintillating rugby that they could elicit standing ovations from Toulouse fans in their own backyard yet clearly not proficient or powerful enough to take the next step.

Then Leinster became the side that Bath want to become. "Massive games reveal characters," Ford tells us.

This one revealed the strength of Leinster's; such a little thing makes a significant difference and too few give them credit for it.

And so, once again, while many of their supporters outside the tent continue to bellow disapproval, it was left to those within to remain resolutely steadfast as they embark upon yet another knock-out semi-final.

The grandeur of a recent Leinster vintage has been soiled, some would argue, by this current collective.

Captain Jamie Heaslip borrows the trite Tom Brady aphorism - "white noise" - to distance himself from the baying mob who, even in victory it seems, somehow recognise defeat.

Rob Kearney references last weekend's congress in Powerscourt as a significant step in allowing the squad to retreat amongst themselves in order to dig deeper than ever before.

"We made a pretty conscious decision to maybe batten down the hatches during the last couple of weeks," he says. "We had a good two days away in Powerscourt and our preparation was brilliant.

"And it's been different to a lot of weeks throughout the season. That's one thing we have to look at, is why it has been different this week. If we want to be a great side, you have to have that level of preparation every single week."

It is a curious aside from a senior player; perhaps it refers to the fractured nature of a season when their players switch incessantly between international and provincial camps but there is also a hint of the nagging frustration within a side that knows it has yet to hit its peak.

"We were definitely stretched during the first half or even three-quarters of the season in terms of injuries and really testing the squad," admits the captain.

"I'd love to know how many players we'll have used by the end of the season. It's a great credit to the squad that we have. A lot of guys who didn't make the bench today are quality players and have a right to be upset. It's a great place to be in."

And yet few of their faithful offer a prayer that they might prosper on their return to France in a fortnight's time; much of the evidence for such mistrust was on display despite Saturday's victory.

"We said it all week, you make an error against these Bath guys who are so potent, they've got a great play-make who can make good decisions," says Heaslip, beginning a narrow focus on a wider issue of Leinster's sustainability in Europe.

"So he (George Ford)makes a good decision, goes through and we're not good in the hunt. It's a try. The second try was a similar situation.

"So those types of basic errors against the calibre of opposition we are going to be playing in two weeks, most of the time, nine times out of ten, they will get points from it.

"And that's what happened to us today. We were lucky when we scrambled a couple of them. I thought when we kept our shape, kept our system, we were very good and we closed down a lot of options for them.

"And when we had the ball and played in the right areas, we applied a lot of pressure. We got a lot of penalties off that. I would have liked to have played much deeper but you have to play what's in front of you.

"But in two weeks' time, we have to go to another level if I'm to be honest. And that's what we talked about pretty much straight after the game.

"But Jesus lads, there was a lot of character shown in that last 20 minutes, they're a very hard team to defend against and they just kept coming and coming and coming.

"To hold out, not give a penalty away in that last set showed a lot of character. So we'll take those positives but we'll also work on the negatives."

A paltry 75% tackle rate should not win a European quarter-final; that it did says much about Bath's greenness.

Passivity was Leinster's enemy in France last season; with little expectation burdening their shoulders and an unreservedly faithful travelling support behind them, this could be the equivalent of a free shot.

"You can't sit back," warns Heaslip. "With or without the ball. Last year we were caught, probably in those first 50 minutes of the game, sitting back.

"You give teams like Bath or Toulon quick ball, they have big runners in their pack, electric guys in the backs and guys pulling the strings and really good at making the right decisions at the right time.

"So you just can't sit back. You can't do that. You gotta to get off the line, you gotta be square, you gotta get guys to the ground, you can't miss tackles. 75% tackle rate today? We can't have that."

Leinster's pedigree demands respect.

"We genuinely feel we have a group of players who feel we can win the European Cup," insists Kearney.

"We may still be a bit off the performance of what's needed for a semi but we are in one and there is a lot of growth which is positive."

Leinster will ignore the delusions without and focus on the desire within.

"It's all noise," says Heaslip. "Everything outside is noise."

Leinster hope to have the last word.

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