Preparation needs to be spot-on for mammoth Saracens test
A down week at this time of the year is definitely a welcome relief. With the 21 games of the Guinness PRO14 played, we could take a step back last weekend and watch as the four other teams went at it to see who would face ourselves and Glasgow in the semi-finals. Just to freshen up was nice. Mentally, physically. Whatever makes you tick.
The break, though, was hard-earned. Twenty-one games, 57 players used by the club and all working towards a home semi-final in the RDS. It was great to achieve it and then to enjoy the little room it gave us all last week. Some lads went away. Some lads stayed at home. But I'd say we all spent some time looking ahead to the Champions Cup final against Saracens this Saturday, and looking to hone in on some things on a personal basis.
For me, it's little things but I think it's important you give them the time and respect they are due. So for example, for a game like this we travelled over yesterday, which is very unusual for a Leinster game.
So what does that mean for me and for my preparations? Then the time in Newcastle itself. It's being played in a soccer stadium, maybe a tighter pitch. The atmosphere. All of these things are good to think about in advance, to give yourself a bit of clarity ahead of such a big occasion. Then you can just focus on the preparations and the game itself in the week leading up to the game. And that is what we have been doing this week.
The week is not hugely different from any other week. Well, that is certainly the way you want to treat it. You want to treat it as normal as possible but at the same time, there is a great energy to the place, with everyone looking forward to the occasion and what's at stake.
I think we can look back on last year and take quite a bit of comfort from knowing we have done all of this before. For example, it was a similar set-up in Bilbao last year, where we travelled over on the Thursday as well and had an early captain's run in the stadium on the Friday. But for me, I go back further than that.
I go back to the season before that and to the semi-finals we lost. Away to Clermont and at home to Scarlets in the RDS. Let's not make those mistakes again. Those moments would be to the forefront of the group's minds, not just my own.
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I also go back to experiences with Ireland. I find I can take little things from all those days and all those experiences, so that in a week like this I have an idea about what's what: 'why did we lose that game or what standards did we need to drive and uphold last season to get us over the line?' Hopefully that all helps build up to a performance.
I also think these weeks make you appreciate what went before. When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk of the great Wexford hurling teams. But then 2009 hit.
I was in the last year in school and now there was a serious buzz about Leinster. I was playing with New Ross and you would be looking up to those guys that won a first Heineken Cup. They were your heroes and you just wanted to emulate them if you got the chance. In 2011 I was in the sub-academy and in 2012 I was in the academy, and seeing what went into those wins from a little bit closer was eye-opening. So you would be mindful of what went before and the legacy of those teams.
The other thing that makes this week a bit different from last year against Racing is the familiarity with some of the Saracens players, but again I think people make more of it than there really is. Yes, you know them personally but you're there to play rugby. It's not like myself and Mako Vunipola will be shooting the breeze in the middle of the game asking how his weekend was. But obviously you would know some of these lads very well from the Lions tour together and from spending time in their company after Ireland games.
The rugby stuff, too, is maybe a moot point because two years is a long time in rugby and players evolve, the game evolves and really, I don't believe that the things we would have worked on together on a Lions tour are necessarily relevant any more. Or maybe more to the point, they are not as relevant as some might think.
It is also similar to the interpro set-up where you are coming up against teams and players that you know very well. What that knowledge also brings is respect. You know the work that those individuals do behind the scenes because you've seen it yourself in Ireland camp, or obviously in this situation on a Lions tour.
So the dynamic is definitely different. We know how good this Saracens team is. Unbeaten. Best defence in the Premiership. And they have players that have been here and done this before. It's the biggest challenge we have faced, definitely.
I have also had the distraction of a new pup at home to give me some balance heading into these weeks. He's a bulldog and he's five months old and he's already making himself at home. He's a lovely little divil, lazy and slobbery! So far so good. I just need to find someone to look after him this weekend.
Finally, safe trip over to the thousands of Leinster fans making the spin. It's been brilliant to see that support all season and we are hugely motivated by the challenge that lies ahead and by representing you all.