Thursday 22 August 2019

Alan Quinlan: A forgotten game last season was a watershed moment that got Leinster back on track

Garry Ringrose in action during Leinster’s win against Bath in January, a game that proved a catalyst for improvement. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Garry Ringrose in action during Leinster’s win against Bath in January, a game that proved a catalyst for improvement. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It was a Friday night in Cardiff and I had just returned from six months out after dislocating my shoulder in the 2003 World Cup.

Defeat to Wasps in the Heineken Cup semi-final the week before had dampened the spirit within the squad but I was relishing the prospect of getting back out onto the field.

Alan Gaffney made plenty of changes for the Celtic League game in Cardiff so the attitude should have been right amongst the guys but it wasn't and we paid a heavy price.

People thought that if you just pulled on a Munster jersey, you'd automatically turn up and perform but that is not always the case and we were humiliated that night. To this day, the 60-14 hammering that Cardiff dished out to us still stands out in my mind as being a real watershed moment for us as a squad and as an organisation.

When you suffer big defeats like that, it can go two ways for a club; you can either keep going downhill or you can take action and do something about it.

That doesn't necessarily mean going off and signing new players. It's about taking a long, hard look at yourself and seeing how you can improve the mentality.

In Munster, we were lucky because we didn't really have too many of those wake-up calls. When I look at Leinster's European campaign last season, there were probably a few games that resulted in a lot of soul searching.

After round four of the Champions Cup, they didn't have a win to their name, which was unheard of. But then they turned up and beat Bath at home.

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That could prove to be Leinster's watershed moment.

When you look at the team that started that day, to have six young players - three of whom were still in the Academy - make their first European start and then end up beating a good Bath side, was crucial for their development.

When you consider the impact that the likes of Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong have had since that day, not just for Leinster but for Ireland as well, it shows how far they have moved on.

Leo Cullen deserves huge credit for that and for drafting in some key personnel. Graham Henry spent some time in the club during the summer and Stuart Lancaster was appointed as a senior coach. Both men have played an important role in helping Leinster turn the corner.

There is an expectation of success from Leinster supporters. The same can said for Munster. There is pressure every time you pull on that jersey and if you don't live up to that expectation, you feel the brunt of it.

Leinster have lost a lot of experience in the last few years, with O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Reddan, Cullen and Jennings all stepping away, but we're starting to see this new generation emerge from the shadows.

I don't think they are a Champions Cup title-winning side just yet but there is no doubt that they are on the right path.

As a player, Leo was always very calm and composed and worked incredibly hard. I'm sure they are the fundamentals that he is trying to instil with his Leinster players as a coach.

He has handled himself well despite the enormous pressure which comes with such high expectations. When you hold the reins of the three-time European Cup winners, the quality of your performance is measured against the great teams of the past.

You'd have to say that he has been massively helped by someone of Lancaster's experience coming in. When Kurt McQuilkin returned to New Zealand for personal reasons, it left a considerable hole but Lancaster has slotted in seamlessly and added another dynamic to Leinster's attack.

Last season, Leinster's execution wasn't where it should have been but they've addressed some of those issues and, even though they aren't the finished article, there are plenty of promising signs.

Signing Robbie Henshaw was a big statement of their intent and his centre partnership with Ringrose is only going to get better. A great understanding is developing between them.

When you think of the partnership that O'Driscoll and D'Arcy formed over time, and how effective it was, these two guys are still so young and their partnership could be so influential for many years to come - both for Leinster and Ireland.

Last weekend's win in Franklin's Gardens has left Leinster in a great position to get a home quarter-final. They have a chance to make another big statement at Lansdowne Road tonight.

Northampton are in disarray and, as much as their team selection looks like they've thrown in the towel in Europe, Leinster will point to that Bath game last season when many people would have said the same thing about them.

Northampton have gone backwards and nothing other than a bonus-point win is what Leinster should expect. There is no doubt that there will be a reaction from Northampton, particularly when a lot of their guys are probably playing for contracts, but ultimately they should not be good enough to live with Leinster.

There is pressure on Leinster to back up last week's impressive performance and, after last season's flat campaign, the players are showing that they have learned lessons and want to create their own legacy now.

It took a thumping defeat in Cardiff for us to learn some of those harsh realities but success followed further down the line.

In years to come, Leinster might well look back at last season as their watershed in this generation's march towards silverware.

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