Two games from greatness
Brian O'Driscoll hit the nail on the head when he suggested in midweek that while it takes a good team to win the Heineken Cup, it takes a great one to repeat the dose.
Well, with a home semi-final to come, albeit against Toulouse -- the top club in this great tournament -- Leinster are just two games shy of greatness. Coach Joe Schmidt has greatly enhanced the side he inherited in the summer and they edge ever closer to the complete package and that mantle of greatness.
In 2006, Munster finally reached the Holy Grail by winning the Heineken Cup after years of coming so close. However, it was the repeat triumph two years on, and with it the change in emphasis, that made that core group great and made the 2008 team so special.
Apart from Anthony Foley (with Alan Quinlan in from the start) the pack was the same, but the telling difference was in midfield, where Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi took Munster's endearing but previously predictable orientation to a different level.
No longer was it enough to meet the forward juggernaut head on. Now teams had to work to contain a side as creative and potent behind as it was true to its tradition up front.
A little unfair perhaps, given the forward quality that had served the province so well, but the one-trick pony had become a 10-trick thoroughbred. It made Munster box office, and the team to be avoided.
There is still much work to be done to win the 2011 tournament, but for Munster then read Leinster now. In many ways it has been the reverse procedure, with Leinster developing a forward edge and collective hardness -- mental as much as physical -- to go with the backline flair that has for so long been part of what they are.
Leinster have always produced talented forwards too but the sum of the individual parts continually made for so much more down south. Now times have changed.
If Michael Cheika paved the way -- and don't forget the key contribution of Kurt McQuilkin, whose defensive legacy continues unabashed -- then Schmidt has unleashed the shackles and sensibly given his players the freedom to play the opposition as the situation arises.
There is in a sense no Plan B, but a modus operandi that draws from whatever script it takes to prevail on the day.
On Saturday, for the second week running, it was full-on assault as Leicester replicated the Munster full-court press to the letter. It was Test-level intensity, in which both the defence and the discipline were remarkable.
Perhaps hard lessons were learned from Ireland's experiences in the Six Nations, but just two penalty kicks at goal conceded in 80 minutes of no-holds-barred rugby says it all. At the end, Leinster were hanging on for dear life, but had Leicester succeeded in drawing level it would have been a travesty, such was Leinster's superiority to that point.
Had Cian Healy not suffered a rush of blood when attacking bodies instead of space or Luke Fitzgerald not over-run Richardt Strauss in another flowing move embracing forwards and backs, the half-time margin would have been a lot more than six points.
While Healy, along with Strauss and the bullocking Mike Ross, was one of three outstanding front-row forwards, it is difficult not to feel for Fitzgerald. He is going through a rough time. Perhaps there is a parallel with Fernando Torres' inability to break his goalscoring duck since joining Chelsea. The former Liverpool striker is working his socks off in dropping deep, but inside the box it's just not happening.
Fitzgerald, like Torres, will come good again -- and soon for sure. He is, along with Keith Earls, the most gifted player available to Declan Kidney but he is trying that little bit too hard. It might sound overly simple but he needs to delay his support lines and angles of running because he is overshooting the connection.
It is something he need not get hung up on, but a little more sympathy for the ball carrier is all that is required to make some brilliantly engineered chances tell. He does not need a rest but could do with a little TLC and some work on support lines in training. There is no better mentor than Schmidt on both counts.
Beyond that it was all positive, with Leo Cullen's line-out homework and deciphering in the white heat of battle crucial. Cullen is now to Leinster what icons Ben Kay, Martin Johnson and Martin Corry were to Leicester for so long. Once Louis Deacon bailed out on the half-hour mark, the line-out became Cullen's preserve.
As losing coach Richard Cockerill acknowledged, Leinster are not just imbued with street-fighting qualities but also with buckets of savvy. And they will need all of that for a semi-final which should be a repeat of the Leicester clash, but with bells on. The Aviva will be heaving again in three weeks' time.
As for Ulster? They are on the right road but with some way to go to bridge the gap between Pool qualifiers and genuine trophy contenders. Northampton were the better side in Milton Keynes. The absence of Stephen Ferris was severely felt, and even Brian McLaughlin must have been taken aback by the Saints' set-piece dominance, particularly in the scrum.
Centre James Downey and No 8 Roger Wilson are key cogs for Northampton, and both staked strong claims for a berth in Ireland's World Cup squad.
Mention too of Munster and that almost point-a-minute Amlin Challenge Cup victory. It must be me getting grumpy in old age, but a feast of nine tries in sun-drenched Brive didn't do as much for me as the Leinster clash featuring one try at Thomond a week earlier, or the two-try game at the Aviva on Saturday. Those were two electrifying games and I'm not too sure competitive rugby gets much better than that.
Bring on Conor O'Shea and Harlequins in the Amlin semis, but let's not lose sight of developing greatness at the business end of the main competition. That is the threshold upon which Leinster now stand. There is much still to be done, but they have the wherewithal to go and do it.
What marks this Leinster group as special is the fundamental honesty which set Munster apart for so long. When spirit and talent combine under the blanket of honesty, then the essential ingredients are in place.
With two home European semi-finals and the possibility of three Irish sides making the last four of the Magners League, it puts our game in a pretty impressive place. Pity about the summer break!