For a decent chunk of this long and winding rugby season there was a prevailing narrative that things were coming too easy for a Leinster side that was picking up bonus points for fun. Leo Cullen’s side came into rugby’s restart in the midst of a 25-game winning run and collected the Guinness PRO14 title with relative ease.
Saracens brought them down to earth at the Aviva Stadium, but they responded to that shuddering defeat by going on a run of nine bonus-point wins in the league and in Europe. As they reached the New Year, all seemed rosy in the garden.
However, a disjointed 2021 has been a very different picture for the four-time Champions Cup winners. Connacht beat them in January, Ospreys in March and while they hammered Munster in the PRO14 final to make it four in a row, they lost to their bitter rivals in the RDS and went down to La Rochelle away.
So, Friday’s Rainbow Cup defeat to Glasgow Warriors, their fifth in 16 matches, ended their competitive interest in the campaign and gives them plenty to ponder as they head towards the summer break.
There are, of course, mitigating factors, not least the amount of chopping and changing Cullen has had to do in a season where his internationals have been absent for long stretches.
Had Rob Russell come on to the field on Friday, he’d have been the 60th player to play for the province in 25 matches. In a sport where cohesion is a valued barometer of success, that comes at a cost.
And yet, there have been moments in recent games that were so unLeinster-like. On Friday, a hesitant Ross Byrne coughed up possession cheaply five metres out with the game on the line. They conceded 15 penalties, some harsh but many cheap, and they had two tries chalked off for indiscretions.
Cullen deals with wins and losses in an ecumenical manner, rarely letting things go to his head when Leinster win or losing it when they lose. He simply sounds like he’s glad this campaign is nearly over.
“There’s lots of different things going on,” he said.
“We’ve chopped and changed the team, so there’s the cohesion piece. We haven’t played in a couple of weeks.
“Not to make excuses, but there are different things going on, various different factors. We’re at the end of a very long slog, it is what it is. Ultimately, we need to be better.
“That has to be a learning for our guys, when you’re not really on point suddenly we’re all quiet in the dressing-room and the opposition are singing and chanting and all the rest.
“You’ve got to go through that pain every now and again. But for us, definitely there are so many things in our control that we could be better at. So, it’s important we learn some of the lessons along the way.”
Normally, Leinster finish their season with a final but that won’t be the case this time around.
However, the return of 1,200 fans at the RDS is cause for celebration and Cullen is excited about the prospect.
“There’ll definitely be some changes next week, exactly how many I’m not sure yet but we’ll have fresh players coming in,” he said. “That presents challenges because you’re trying to build cohesion all over again.
“That’s the thing, it’s been a bit stop-start and disjointed but it is what it is. We haven’t been good enough in this Rainbow Cup but next week we want to put on a good show for two main factors really, players finishing up and having a crowd.
“How amazing would it be to have 1,200 people in the RDS, a stepping stone for greater things, and we get back to some semblance of normality.
“Today was our 30th game since the restart, so to have some sort of a crowd at the RDS next week is hugely exciting. So our guys just need to dust themselves off now, turn their attention to a new challenge and it’s back playing in front of our fans.”