From 'culturally nowhere near' to the cusp of greatness in just two years - The rise and rise of Leinster
Six years have passed since Joe Schmidt's Leinster achieved their crowning glory at Twickenham, routing Ulster to confirm their status as a true European dynasty with their third title in four years.
Over the passing seasons, they have watched others rule the roost. Toulon won three, Saracens two and while their squad provided the backbone of Schmidt's Ireland team they could not match their international success with their province.
One by one, the all-time greats who worked so hard to put three stars on the jersey either left or retired and in their absence the one-time power-houses struggled to make a mark; never getting beyond the semi-final stage.
2016 was the nadir of the cycle as the returned Johnny Sexton famously went public with his frustration at how far the province had fallen.
In two seasons, they have gone from being "culturally nowhere near" to re-establishing themselves as Europe's best team.
Today in Bilbao, they get the chance to cement their position by beating a good Racing 92 team who are on their own path to glory.
And if they do get over the line, then they can realistically expect to stay at the top of the tree for some time to come given the age profile of some of their leading lights.
Sixteen of their match-day 23 are involved in their first Champions Cup final, although Jamison Gibson-Park has a Super Rugby medal, Scott Fardy has bags of experience and Robbie Henshaw was on the winning side of Leinster's PRO12 final loss to Connacht two years ago.
And yet there will be little concern about how the young men in blue handle the occasion.
Most of them were part of Ireland's Grand Slam win two months ago and relish these big games.
In particular, Jordan Larmour, James Ryan and Dan Leavy bring a fearlessness to proceedings that allows the senior men like Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton to concentrate on their own work.
Beating Racing is no certainty, the Parisians were excellent against Munster and have the capacity to hurt this Leinster team.
Their game-plan may be simple, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not dangerous. The big spenders have accumulated some of the best one-on-one attackers in the game.
Whet will give Leinster fans belief as they make their way to the Basque country is a run to the final that stands alone.
Since they beat the French Top 14 table-toppers Montpellier in October, they have laid waste to the English champions and Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs, the PRO14 leaders Glasgow Warriors, the PRO14 champion Scarlets and the Champions Cup holders in Saracens.
Only Exeter and Montpellier managed to make life remotely uncomfortable for a team that came up short at the semi-final stage against Clermont last season.
They absorbed that lesson and have tightened up their game.
This season, they have been less free-wheeling but more effective; crushing opponents through a combination of relentless physicality and clever decision-making.
It is a world away from 2016 when Stuart Lancaster arrived to find an organisation at a low ebb.
On his first day, he began a process of rebuilding their winning mind-set.
"They had just lost to Connacht in the PRO12 final, but also come bottom of the pool in Europe, so had lost to Wasps by an aggregate score of over 100," he recalled."If you look at it, it wasn't a great season, and I said, 'I think we can win Europe'. And I think most of the players looked at me, as if to say...
"And I said, 'Let me tell you the reason why'. In that window of the week, I had been able to analyse the final and those Wasps games and everything else.
"I put it on the board and showed them clips of how we could improve and they bought into it straight away, which is great really."
That process has led them to this point.
Their work has earned them the favourites tag but they will be made to work for the title by a Racing team laced with threat.
Captain Maxime Machenaud is a massive loss to their effort, however. The scrum-half was a hugely influential presence in the win over Munster last month and without him to direct traffic the French side may struggle.
Replacement Teddy Iribaren is a decent running threat, but the responsibility for running the game shifts to Pat Lambie and, while the Springbok is a fine player, he is out-matched by his opposite number Sexton who has the added motivation of facing his former club.
Up front, Leinster will have their work cut out against a front-row of French internationals supported by the familiar figure of Donnacha Ryan and the flamboyant Leone Nakarawa, who can break a team wide open with his off-loading game.
Racing have the best defensive lineout in the tournament and possess a rare ability to get off the ground and contest in the air, but Devin Toner is a canny caller and Seán Cronin has been accurate out of touch in recent weeks.
The lineout battle will be key, if Racing can disrupt in the way they did against Munster then they can deny Leinster their main access point.
If they can at least break even up front, Leinster hold the edge elsewhere. Their back-row combination of Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy appear to have the edge on Racing's dynamic trio of Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux and Yannick Nyanga.
At half-back, Luke McGrath needs to hit the ground running after more than a month out with an ankle injury, but having Sexton alongside him will help.
Robbie Henshaw has more to offer than Henry Chavancy, while Garry Ringrose will back himself to cause more problems than Virimi Vakatawa than vice versa, but in Teddy Thomas Racing have the outstanding back-three player on show, and he will hope to get one-on-one with the retiring Isa Nacewa who is missing more tackles than he used to.
Although he is no longer the force of old, Dan Carter is enjoying an Indian summer and showed against Clermont that he can still run a game, but Leinster will aim to make sure that the contest is over by the time he arrives.
Fast starts and managing a lead have been important for Leinster and Ireland; if Racing can make them chase the game they'll have a chance.
But across the park, the Irish province look too strong for their opponents.
If they deliver a performance, then they'll be back where they feel they belong.
"To be crowned the best team in Europe, you have to earn it. Whoever wins will have earned it the hard way," Lancaster said.
They've certainly done that to date; one more step and they'll be kingpins again.
LEINSTER - R Kearney; J Lamour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; S Fardy, D Leavy, J Murphy. Reps: J Tracy, J McGrath, A Porter, R Ruddock, J Conan, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery, R O'Loughlin.
RACING 92 - L Dupichot; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, M Andreu; P Lambie, T Iribaren; E Ben Arous, C Chat, C Gomes Sa; D Ryan, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux, Y Nyanga (capt). Reps: O Avei, V Kakovin, C Johnston, B Palu, B Chouzenoux, A Gibert, D Carter, J Rokocoko.
Ref - W Barnes (England)
The road to Bilbao for Leinster
Leinster 24 Montpellier 17
RDS, Oct 14
Of the starting team that opened the competition for Leinster, just six are still in the XV for the final as the young guns downed a fancied Montpellier team at the RDS.
Despite losing Scott Fardy before kick-off, James Ryan stepped in and contributed to a bonus-point win with Joey Carbery, Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw and Barry Daly crossing for tries.
Leinster – J Carbery; A Byrne, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt, N Reid 35), B Daly (F McFadden 79); R Byrne, L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 63); J McGrath (C Healy 47), J Tracy (S Cronin 47), T Furlong (M Bent 62); D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 62); R Ruddock, J van der Flier (J Murphy 62), J Conan (J van der Flier 73).
Glasgow Warriors 18 Leinster 34
Scotstoun, Oct 21
This was billed as a difficult task against a Glasgow side who had started life under new coach Dave Rennie with a fast start to the season. Scotstoun is a difficult away venue, but the away team proved too powerful for the Scots with Cian Healy to the fore – scoring two first-half tries to give them a foothold before Johnny Sexton and Noel Reid completed the bonus-point win that put Leinster in control of the pool.
Leinster – J Carbery; F McFadden, R Henshaw, N Reid, B Daly (D Kearney 41); J Sexton (R Byrne 67), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 61); C Healy (J McGrath 49), S Cronin (J Tracy 49), T Furlong (M Bent 67); D Toner, S Fardy (J Ryan 54); R Ruddock, J van der Flier (D Leavy 49), J Conan.
Exeter Chiefs 8 Leinster 18
Sandy Park, Dec 10
This was a brutal game, but one that Leinster wrestled from Exeter’s grasp as they squeezed the life out of the English champions.
Jack Conan’s try at the end of 44 phases summed up a gritty, hard-working performance as they left Sandy Park in full control of the pool.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden (J Tracy 44), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt) (J Larmour 73); J Sexton (R Byrne 72), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 72); C Healy (J McGrath 53), S Cronin (J Tracy), T Furlong (M Bent 72); D Toner, S Fardy (J Ryan 72); R Ruddock (J van der Flier 43), S O’Brien, J Conan.
Leinster 22 Exeter Chiefs 17
Aviva, Dec 16
This was the greatest struggle Leinster had on their way to the final, with Exeter dominating the first half as a number of injuries threatened to derail the hosts at the Aviva Stadium.
Trailing 17-3, they lost Scott Fardy to the sin-bin but the introduction of Dan Leavy helped turn the game the home side’s way and his stunning break set up Luke McGrath to score the all-important try.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton (R Byrne 3(J Larmour 8-16), L McGrath (J Gibson-Park 76); C Healy (J McGrath 56), S Cronin (J Tracy 56), T Furlong (A Porter 75); D Toner (J Ryan 57), S Fardy; S O’Brien (D Leavy 57), J Van der Flier (J McGrath 19-28), J Conan.
Leinster 55 Glasgow Warriors 19
RDS, Jan 14
Already out of the competition, Glasgow sent over a weakened side and Leinster took full advantage to secure their place in the quarter-finals with an eight-try win.
Leinster – J Larmour; F McFadden, R Henshaw (R Kearney 55), I Nacewa (capt), J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 50), L McGrath (N McCarthy 70); J McGrath (C Healy 50), S Cronin (B Byrne 58), T Furlong (A Porter (58); D Toner (J Ryan 63), S Fardy; J Murphy, J van der Flier, J Conan (D Leavy 55)
Montpellier 14 Leinster 23
Altrad Stadium, Jan 20
Despite resting Johnny Sexton, Leo Cullen’s men secured top seeding with another impressive win over a Montpellier side still in the hunt for the last eight.
Leinster – R Kearney (J Carbery 58); J Larmour, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt), J Lowe (F McFadden 69); R Byrne, J Gibson-Park (L McGrath 58); C Healy (J McGrath 45), S Cronin (B Byrne 66), T Furlong (A Porter 66), D Toner, J Ryan (R Molony 73); D Leavy (J Murphy 67), J Conan, J van der Flier.
Leinster 30 Saracens 19
Aviva, March 30
A first-half blitz saw Leinster end Saracens’ two-year reign as European kingpins in style, with a superb score from Garry Ringrose getting them up and running.
Sarries threw everything at the home side, but their defence held strong before James Ryan set Leavy up to score, before James Lowe crossed to put the game beyond the English side, who staged a late rally to no avail.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, I Nacewa (capt) (R O’Loughlin 79), J Lowe; J Sexton, L McGrath (N McCarthy 66); C Healy (J McGrath 54), S Cronin (T Tracy 60), T Furlong (A Porter 66), D Toner (y/c 75), J Ryan, S Fardy (R Ruddock 66), J Murphy (M Deegan 79).
Leinster 38 Scarlets 16
Aviva, April 21
Having won the PRO14 in Dublin by beating Leinster and Munster along the way, Scarlets travelled across the Irish Sea in a confident mood but they were blown away by an impressive show of Leinster’s power.
James Ryan got the scoring under way before Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Fergus McFadden and Scott Fardy got in on the demolition job.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton (capt) (J Carbery 62), J Gibson-Park (N McCarthy 72); C Healy (J McGrath 53), S Cronin (J Tracey 58), T Furlong (A Porter 62), D Toner, J Ryan, S Fardy, D Leavy (J Conan 66), J Murphy.
Leinster v Racing 92
San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao
Today, 4.45, live, Sky Sports/ BT Sport