Sunday 22 September 2019

'That’s where Leo’s planning comes into it' - How a 2016 dead rubber set Leinster on the road to European glory

16 January 2016; Garry Ringrose, Leinster. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 5, Round 5, Leinster v Bath. RDS Arena, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
16 January 2016; Garry Ringrose, Leinster. European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 5, Round 5, Leinster v Bath. RDS Arena, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Des Berry

It was January 15, 2016, a miserable time of the year, made even more miserable by the fact Leinster’s European adventure that season had already ground to a halt.

They had taken four blows to the body from as many straight losses to Bath, Toulon twice and Wasps.  

There was disagreement among the Leinster coaches on what they should be looking to get out of Bath at home, a match with nothing on the line.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen was going through a hard time in his first season. He could have taken the easy route and turned to his seasoned internationals. 

"That’s where Leo’s planning comes into it," said scrum-coach John Fogarty yesterday.

"I was thinking, 'let’s get something (a win) to prove somebody wrong'. 

"For him, he was thinking there is so much to gain. The season was a write-off, in terms of Europe back then.

"Leo might have been thinking, 'let’s start to build this team'. I have a feeling he was looking ahead back then."

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Cullen could easily have tried to steady the blue ship. Instead, he turned to six European debutants in Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Ross Molony and Josh van der Flier.

"Leo was accused of putting out a weaker team," said Ringrose yesterday.

"I know Bath had something to play for and there were six guys making their European debut at the time. There was that extra bit of edge and bite. It was my first time exposed to that.

"It was pretty much like a test match intensity. It was one of many learning experiences along the way to what happened last week."

Two years later, scrum-half McGrath and centre Ringrose started in the Champions Cup final in Bilbao.

There is every reason to believe van der Flier would have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them had injury not ruined his season.

Hooker James Tracy was on the bench and second row Ross Molony probably would have been beside him had Rhys Ruddock not recovered from his hamstring problem.

It is Ringrose who has risen highest at this point, though he would be far too humble to even contemplate it. 

"It (the final) was similar to the Grand Slam where you try not get too distracted by what’s at stake and more about sticking to what works and bringing the best version of yourself on the weekend. That’s what helps you win, ultimately," he stated.

"Afterwards, it’s still a bit surreal that we’ve managed to add to that legacy of what I would have been used to growing up.

"It’s a pretty special feeling even to be part of it."

Liverpool icon and football pundit Alan Hansen once said of the fledgling Manchester United team of the mid-1990s: 'You can’t win anything with kids.' But it all comes down to who is around them. 

"There is a good group of young guys that have come through," Ringrose explained. "But, ultimately, I reckon the leaders drive the standards and the experience we have amongst the group has been vital to the success.

"The young guys can’t really take too much credit for the path they paved for us to follow."

Sure, the leaders have to show the way. But, there has to be maturity there, not just to follow blindly, but to add what and where they can.

Boy, they have done that.

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