Friday 23 March 2018

Leinster - The building of an empire

Six years ago, Leinster had 200 season ticket holders, next year that number will be around 12,000. David Kelly examines the stories behind the province's phenomenal success

Jamie Heaslip signs autographs for some of the hundreds of supporters who welcomed Leinster players back to the RDS on Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip signs autographs for some of the hundreds of supporters who welcomed Leinster players back to the RDS on Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

It has taken only a decade but Leinster have constructed an empire. Two Heineken Cup wins in three years -- it could easily have been a hat-trick but for injury last season -- frank their status as the kings of Europe.

Good teams win Europe's premier competition once. Great teams win it twice -- and more. When Toulouse lifted their second crown on Irish soil in 2003, many within Irish rugby were already meekly accepting that theirs would be a supporting act for the so-called giants of European rugby.

Instead, Munster forged a path that Ireland and Leinster have followed. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whether French budgets that soar beyond €20m, or the vastly superior playing numbers boasted by England, have been spectacularly vaulted.

Leinster's golden generation have cashed in. And they can show everyone their medals with pride.

But why stop now? Munster have hit a speed bump, but possess the wit and resources to recover their European reputation. Ireland can look forward confidently to a World Cup, backboned by fearless Leinster warriors, with which to globalise continental supremacy.

And what of Leinster? Theirs is an opportunity rife with limitless opportunity and ripe for harvesting. 'Believe in magic' is the Leinster rugby motto.

Their achievement, however, is predicated upon something much more substantial than mere illusion.

An empire is nothing without its people. Players, supporters and also staff will ultimately continue to backbone this remarkable success story.

Managing the future

On the same weekend that Carlo Ancelotti was sacked from his post as Chelsea manager in a corridor close to the men's toilets, Leinster boss Joe Schmidt -- whose salary represents a fraction of the Italian's -- presented a rather different picture of sports management.

As Chelsea search for yet another name from the managerial merry-go-round lucky dip to satisfy their ambition, Schmidt's appointment by chief executive Mick Dawson reminded one of how canny a choice he was. Following the metronomic Michael Cheika was no easy task; Schmidt's humility and honesty has characterised his reign.

Cheika had developed a structure which allowed the players to assume more and more responsibility compared to the loose atmosphere that had existed when he arrived in 2005; it was only a couple of years earlier that player unrest had unseated an unpopular coach. Schmidt, formerly a mere lieutenant, is a benevolent man-manager and he extended the players' limits in terms of self-control and regulation; the squad is the ultimate classless society. There are no favourites, no cliques, no boundaries.

Bequeathed a smoothly functioning structure by Cheika (including Jono Gibbes), Schmidt's tweaking has been adept; his own skill-set has reinstated Leinster's traditional attacking style, scrum guru Greg Feek's arrival ultimately transformed Leinster's doomed Cardiff hopes last weekend, while skills coach Richie Murphy plays a more integral role than ever before.

Leinster have created a coaching dynasty.

The playing deck

When Jonny Sexton and Leo Cullen met Schmidt 18 months ago in the Burlington Hotel for a pre-arranged meeting, the incoming coach realised just how much strength of personality coursed through this remarkably talented troupe.

"To be honest," Schmidt revealed after Leinster's Cardiff triumph, "I didn't talk to Michael (Cheika) a lot because in the transition period I was with Clermont and he was with Leinster .

"We were going to be playing each other in the quarter-final and once that happened, the season kind of finishes quickly after that and also we were looking to focus on the Bouclier de Brennus. I'd enough on my plate without trying to keep a foot in both camps.

"My first impression was ... Jonny was one of the reasons why I came. I met Jonny with Leo and I remember saying to him, or he said to me, 'look, I think you can bring something we want'.

"I said 'look, you know, I'm not sure, I haven't really done the job before, I'm not sure about driving the group forward', and Jonny goes 'ah don't worry about that, we'll do that. You just give us the stuff we think we need and we'll drive the boys forward, we'll motivate them and keep them on the straight and narrow'.

"He struck me as an incredibly mature young man, an incredibly driven young man. I already knew he was a very good player. At the time I hadn't decided. That was one of the things that helped me decide."

The golden generation may be slowly ageing; however, a gilded succession awaits.

After the gold rush

Leinster's progress is good for Irish rugby -- and the IRFU in particular -- but the advantages are necessarily mutually beneficial.

Leinster will have earned the governing body a cool €3m from their European exploits this season and the IRFU will recycle that and top up with just over another €1m or so next year.

For their part, the IRFU will continue to bankroll the signatures of the leading domestic lights while continuing to co-operate in the development of grassroots.

Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Sexton, to name but three whose combined salaries soar beyond seven figures, are all paid with cheques endorsed by Lansdowne Road HQ, not Donnybrook.

With about 50 players and staff helping Leinster to their title win, they are unlikely to have bargained for much more than a €2-3000 bonus for winning the Heineken Cup; albeit there would have been serial bonuses throughout qualification.

The multi-million euro sponsorship deals -- the key ones are with Canterbury and a €6m four-year Bank of Ireland deal, the latter recently negotiated -- will have budgeted for four-figure bonuses throughout the competition.

Leinster's other income is from season ticket sales -- from 200 six years ago, next year's total is nearing 12,000 and with some slots available for under €300, following the side doesn't cost the earth. The once strong Red Army has been supplanted by the Blue Army.

Build it and they will come

Being able to use the Aviva Stadium can also help Leinster maintain their status as a superpower; Toulouse backboned their development of winning squads and world-class facilities by repeatedly earning money-spinning home quarter-finals.

Leinster earned around €700,000 from their quarter-final against Leicester; moving big ties to the Aviva next season can top up this bonus and help to pay for their highly-paid overseas imports like Isa Nacewa.

Being professional on the field means being increasingly professional off it and Leinster are belatedly beginning to develop facilities to match their squad's perennial desire to improve themselves.

Hence, the new development of world-class facilities in Clonskeagh, to dovetail with their renewed commitment to train and propagate links to UCD in areas like sports science and nutrition will be key. The entire Leinster operation -- senior and academy squads, medical, rehab, training and administration -- will be moved to the 10,000sqm old Philips building.

It will include a gym, a 45m indoor running track, hydrotherapy and cryotherapy units, a players' lounge, a restaurant, an elaborate open-plan video analysis floor and an office space three times the size of the current premises in Donnybrook.

Leinster will have pitches especially for rugby as well as access to all UCD pitches, including the all-weather surface, and an Olympic-size swimming pool. And the entire budget of some €2.5m is reportedly being donated by a benefactor and Leinster supporter.

Wheels Keep Turning

Leinster's desperate quest to keep the conveyor belt of talent churning out is ceaseless. The developmental tentacles are reaching wider with every season; only recently, an inner-city blitz between two non-rugby playing schools hinted that no stone will be left unturned in the search for future stars.

A recent blitz in Tallaght featured 38 teams with 370 players; Aughrim in Wicklow has just inaugurated its first rugby club with 100 members. Directly beneath the senior structure, under former international Phil Lawlor and former Ireland coach Gerry Murphy, Leinster's under-age teams are catered for.

There are five regional development officers beneath the surface beavering away from Boyne to Bunclody, Tullamore to Tallaght. There are community officers penetrating over 40 clubs, FAS officers, college officers in all the major universities. The U-18s recently won the Jean Gaze tournament in Perpignan; how long until Harrison Brewer, Jody Carroll and Jack O'Neill are stars?

In a new study published by Dublin firm Onside Sponsorship consultants, the number of people who claim to be Leinster rugby fans tops a million.

It would take a lifetime for them all to watch the side in the RDS; maximising this support, on and off the field, will hold the key to ensuring that Leinster's empire is built to last a long, long time.

Irish Independent

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