Wednesday 21 November 2018

Being so comfortable in chaos sets latest Leinster vintage apart from rest this season

Players' belief and confidence in way they play is new normal at the province

Dan Leavy is thriving in the winning environment at Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dan Leavy is thriving in the winning environment at Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There was something familiar about Leinster being in unfamiliar territory yesterday. On the eve of today's Champions Cup final, Leinster trained at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao to get used to the new surroundings.

The home of Athletic Bilbao is obviously made for football - this isn't rugby country. Which was why organisers decided to host the European club final in a city outside of the traditional venues.

There is something non-traditional about this Leinster team as an Irish side and we've seen evidence of that in the build-up to today's final.

Where is the overwhelming angst about an Irish province facing a Top 14 team loaded with internationals? Where is the worry about a fear of failure?

Where is the nervousness that the Irish team might flop on the big day? Where is the insecurity that the French team might outsmart, out-muscle or out-flair Leinster?

It's hard to have those overbearing fears about this Leinster team.

Leinster going into a European final as favourites is nothing new - see 2011 and 2012. At the winners' homecoming in the RDS the day after they beat Northampton in Cardiff in 2011, then head coach Joe Schmidt admitted that maybe the pressure of being favourites got to the team going into the final before they famously turned it around in the second half to win.

There was only ever going to be one winner in the all-Ireland Heineken Cup final a year later.

Stacked But that Leinster vintage was stacked with experience. Same with the Munster side which won two Heineken Cups. Just over half of the Leinster team starting today have never experienced a European Cup final before although that number comes with the obvious rider that it includes experienced internationals like Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw, Scott Fardy et al.

We almost take for granted the fact that there's not a whiff of the underdog about Leinster. Here's an Irish team going to a European final demanding and intent on winning.

At Monday's press conference players didn't try to play down the fact that they're favourites for today mainly because it's probably beyond irrelevant to them which sets them apart from other Irish teams which would have played on that in the past.

It seemed apt that this week TG4 announced that 'Underdogs' is making a comeback which seemed like a throwback to another era. There will always be a love for the underdog. But the fight for the underdog position in Irish sport has long become a tired motif as if constructing a sense of being underappreciated, undervalued, unloved is the best route to bringing out the best in us.

It's like the 'better when we're bitter' approach which, admittedly, worked for teams in the past.

But Leinster don't need to feed off nonsensical constructs like underdogs or favourites.

Maybe it's because we don't know them as well as we knew other successful provincial teams but this Leinster side largely doesn't appear to feel the need to turn itself inside out and drain itself emotionally to get to the right pitch.

Johnny Sexton admitted yesterday to being nervous coming into today's final. But great expectations bring great pressure.

You can bet that Sexton believes in what they'll try to do today because they've been playing and winning every game in Europe this season like a machine and are successfully putting into action Stuart Lancaster's comfortable-in-chaos ethos.

What marks this Leinster team as different is, like Ireland this season, they play like they have complete faith and knowledge of the game-plan and their individual jobs.

Also, there's little drama about this Leinster team - they put you in a position where you don't need to fear for them. Look at this season.

While Munster needed the drama of a stunning Andrew Conway try to win their Champions Cup quarter-final, Leinster's neutering of the three-in-a-row chasing Saracens and dismantlement of Pro12 champions Scarlets in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively was almost mechanically and methodically done - a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Maybe this is what the second wave of success looks like if they win today.

While the Heineken Cup-winning Leinster sides set the initial standard in the province, this current team have grown and joined an environment where that winning culture is being reinforced.

You see it in the likes of Dan Leavy and James Ryan. In the lead-up to Ireland's Grand Slam game against England two months ago there were questions asked about how they would handle the big occasion considering they never started against England before and never played at Twickenham before. They made a fool of those doubts.

"Yeah, they've played some very big games over the last year haven't they, and they've done really well so there's no worries that end. They'll bring what they brought all season, I'm sure," Sexton said about Leavy and Ryan yesterday.

"They've thrived in those sort of occasions and not gone into their shells".

irony What Leinster could achieve today should embolden the other provinces. There's a little irony in the fact that its Leinster who've developed a comfortable-in-chaos approach on the pitch when it's the other provinces which are in varying degrees of chaos for different reasons.

Ulster are at the lowest point in their history, Connacht need a new head coach for the second time in two seasons. And while Munster did really well to reach the Champions Cup semi-final with head coach Johann van Graan in the job less than six months, their semi-final display against Racing 92 was a complete head-scratcher and had Glasgow been more clinical last weekend then Munster's season could have been over.

Only today will tell the full truth of everything I have just mentioned here about Leinster. We thought nothing could top the 2012 dominance but it's like Leinster have double-downed this season on who they want to be and how they want to play.

Trying to be comfortable in chaos has never sounded as reassuring.

Irish Independent

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