Monday 17 December 2018

Leinster show they've learned their lesson from 2017 Champions Cup exit


Johnny Sexton shows his emotions after scoring Leinster's fifth try against Scarlets. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton shows his emotions after scoring Leinster's fifth try against Scarlets. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

So no All-Ireland final, then.

Twelve months on, Leinster may have addressed their shortcomings in Europe, but Munster, admittedly in less than Year One of a new coaching regime, have not.

James Ryan squeezes in for Leinster's opening try. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire
James Ryan squeezes in for Leinster's opening try. Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire

Leinster's squad has improved and so too their game. Munster, in Europe at least, have fallen well short and successive semi-finals represents a high watermark by all reasonable measures except their own ambition.

Leinster seem set to kick on now; Munster, kicking themselves, must continue to transition. Ulster may fancy their chances against the wounded side next week; Leinster, unbeaten in interpros, still want more.

Jonathan Sexton is nodding furiously as Leo Cullen is asked whether some of his squad will be pitching up in Galway next weekend. The out-half would play if given half the chance, which, presumably, he won't.

He wanted to play the entire 80 minutes on Saturday, too, only reluctantly acceding to the request to make way for Joey Carbery. "He needs the game-time," he grudgingly concedes.

Nobody wants to miss out as Leinster continue their relentless march towards a potential double.

A healthy league seeding will buy the province a week off before the Bilbao final and then they have a clear run-in in the secondary competition thereafter.

In the past, the later staging of European competition shoehorned both finals into successive weeks, which, even when Leinster reached their apogee of performance levels in 2012, proved too excessive a burden to overcome.

Based on recent evidence, there is nothing to suggest that a side who have not won a trophy in four years couldn't conceivably bag both titles again. Munster and Scarlets, returning heads bowed to domestic affairs, will be keen to quibble.

Mick Dawson is the money man and Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster the ideas guys, but Sexton remains the talisman who guides this province's ambition.

To assess where they can go next, it is crucial to assess where he believes he has come from.

There were enough substantial hints offered a few hours after the second most comprehensive European semi-final success in history.

"We had to rethink a lot of the things that we were doing," said Cullen.

"It clearly wasn't good enough for us so we had to get back to the drawing board and work incredibly hard. Ultimately, it will be good for the club because it's certainly had to focus a lot of minds for us to improve and get better.

"Managing the demands of the season and understanding you're going to be missing players at certain times of the year. How we invest in the resources is a big thing."

There are three essential elements - recruitment, the associated acceleration of key indigenous players and adaptations in style.

All have been evident throughout this campaign and their absence was stark when these sides met in vastly different circumstances and with a widely contrasting outcome 12 months ago.

Recruitment has been key; Leinster's overall strength has been such that they have largely excluded Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe in Europe this season, and may do so again, but Scott Fardy will be a key figure in the quest for silverware and the maintenance of exalted standards.

"I don't think James would be the player he is without him, the back-rowers too," observed Sexton. "They all get specific coaching from him."

And so Leinster are a team transformed, individually and collectively, decisively led from the coaching box and via their on-field enforcers.

Already in Europe they have defeated Glasgow, recent domestic champions and current conference leaders, the champions of England and France, the back-to-back European champions and then the PRO12 champions.

Asked to assess how Leinster could get better, Cullen arguably appeared flustered for the first time all afternoon. "A couple of penalties that we gave away were probably in our control, which puts a bit more unnecessary pressure on ourselves," the Leinster coach mentioned, uncertainly.

"We gave up a try at the end..."

They may not voice it publicly, but targeting a trophy double must clearly be a goal and, thereafter, the creation of a new dynasty, bequeathed by the lingering, greedy hunger of veterans like Sexton, Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa.

"The way the games are set up now, we are five points ahead of Scarlets, we play against Connacht away, they play against Dragons.

"So we need to get a point for definite, make sure we are top of our conference.

"We need to get a point to make sure there is a weekend off, so we will be going full out for the game in Bilbao.

"And then we will see who is left standing, when we can make some calls for what we hope is a semi-final the week afterwards.

Ryan believes his side can "step up another gear" - a frightening thought for the competition, but no team is unbeatable. Leinster possess such humility, too; itself a vital factor when May crowns its champions.

Recent history suggests when a quality side reaches the European summit, the qualities that lifted them to such heights can keep them there too.

While Leinster drive on, Munster can only watch on.

Irish Independent

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