Monday 14 October 2019

Resurrection men keep on rising

Leinster have made giant strides in ten years of European competition, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you had doubted the resolve of Stade Francais to make a meaningful protest before being turfed empty-handed out of the RDS on Friday night – and we did – then you needed to review that.

It wasn't that they weren't up for it, rather they simply weren't up to it.

Their reward is that they can concentrate on sorting themselves out next season without having to throw any shapes at the Heineken Cup, and in the context of making an impression on the Top 14, that is significant.

The difference with their hosts appropriately was illustrated in the quality of the coaching as much as the quality of the players. When in phase play you can orchestrate moves of set-piece standard then you're operating at the highest level. From the four gems produced on a lovely evening, our favourite was Ian Madigan's touchdown – partly because the top try scorer started and finished the move himself, and partly because it featured Isaac Boss, a quality player barely recognised during the Declan Kidney era, along with Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, whose joint contributions have been massive.

There was unease pre-match because Joe Schmidt had diluted the mix in order to be potent against Ulster next Saturday. His selection was described in some quarters as a risk. The risk would have been in sticking with the same players and then asking them for even more against Ulster. Rather it was a good use of resources, which, combined with the B&I win in extra-time for the 'A' side in Newcastle, look decent enough despite the loss of key personnel.

In the circumstances, it is appropriate then to measure the distance between here and 10 years ago, the last time Leinster had been presented with a home run all the way to a European final.

In 2003, they had come through to the knockout stages as the only team with a 100 per cent record. But with it all teed up nicely, Leinster drove it out of bounds: they beat Biarritz by the skin of their teeth in the quarters and were badly bitten by Perpignan in the semis.

If it was bad news in Donnybrook then it was worse again in the ERC offices a mile away on Stephen's Green. The organisers had just been lumbered with the toughest sell in the eight-year history of the competition: Perpignan versus Toulouse in Dublin. And, unlike yesterday's all-French match-up, it didn't sell.

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It wasn't a great time to be flogging the Leinster brand either. We had imagined what it might be like to have them do what Ulster had done four years earlier, but if Ulster had fallen off the edge no sooner than they had won in it 1999, then Leinster hadn't even gotten close to the edge. And it would take a while.

There were a few calamities along the way. A few months after the home run had stalled there was a top-of-the-range new singing in Felipe Contepomi. Unfortunately, someone in the back office got the paperwork wrong and he had to sit out his first European campaign. Truly a sign of the times, that.

A year later, another outhalf had arrived as well. Kiwi David Holwell was only available for a year at first, but would come back four seasons later as a short-stop injury cover. By the time of his second coming the unknown Michael Cheika had succeeded Declan Kidney, who had lasted just a season, and Kidney himself had taken over from another one-season wonder in Gary Ella. Unsteady times back then.

"The fact that he has already played for us and understands our culture is a real bonus," Cheika said of Holwell when he agreed to

answer the emergency call. From memory, Cheika was the first man to introduce the C-word to the Leinster lexicon.

The interesting thing was that Holwell had been unimpressed with elements of Leinster's 'culture' in his first incarnation in blue, and it illustrated perfectly how far they had yet to travel.

His plan had always been to sign for just that one year in 2004/05 and then go back and tend the farm in Northland, which his dad had been looking after while he had been on duty with the Hurricanes in Super Rugby. Nevertheless, he had been so good for Leinster that you expected them to weigh him down. He left right on time.

A couple of moments stayed with Holwell from his first stint in Dublin. Like his opening game for Leinster, against Edinburgh in Donnybrook. Time was running out and the home team had scored three tries in the course of wrapping the game up, but they were less than exercised about making it four and picking up the extras.

Brian O'Driscoll suggested to Holwell that he might bog the next ball out of the ground and they could be done with it. "Jeez, what about the bonus point?" asked the new man. He ran the next ball, and they scored. Leinster got the bonus they hadn't been too bothered about, and Holwell had made his point that it's always good to be bothered.

David Holwell couldn't quite identify with that soft edge. Six months later, I interviewed him when he had made the decision to go back home. The exact departure date was unfixed, however, for Leinster first had a Heineken Cup quarter-final date with Leicester Tigers in Lansdowne Road. There was an awkward moment in the conversation when Holwell, with some trepidation, said that those Tigers who were coming back from Six Nations duty with England would be chomping at the bit. No doubt they would, but wouldn't the Leinster forwards be in the same frame of mind? "Yeah, fingers crossed," he said. It was about as enthusiastic an endorsement of his team-mates as football's standard vote of confidence in the manager.

A few days later, you understood his unease. Leinster were downright weak. They were bullied about the park. The Tigers had been planning this one for months. Indeed they had been en route home from Italy, having unloaded 62 points on Calvisano in the final pool game, when the news came through that they had drawn Leinster away in the quarters. It was greeted by whooping and hollering around the aircraft.

Worse was to follow for Leinster after that quarter-final hammering. First Kidney upped sticks to go back to Munster; and then forwards Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings announced they were going to hang out with the bullies in Welford Road. The ultimate insult came from the Tigers' forwards coach John Wells, a month after the match. "Well basically the Leinster forwards were not up to it," he said, in a withering assessment. "I can think of five or six French teams who could duff them up."

Oh yeah? Well in 2006 were Leinster not duffing up the most fearsome of those French teams in the European quarter-finals? In Toulouse? Perhaps more dancing around them than duffing them up, but either way the Wellsian theory looked to have sprung a leak. Then Munster went to work on Felipe Contepomi in the semi-final and suddenly it was holding water again.

Not sure what Holwell would have made of that, but many Leinster fans had perhaps been prescient in surrendering their tickets to the Red Army that day. In the long, colourful and often bitter rivalry between the provinces, Munster had never had it so good.

The resurrection would need a handful of leaders. Contepomi, O'Driscoll, and the prodigals Cullen and Jennings would be at the heart of it.

The Puma was the key figure, for he was both the weakest and strongest link. Munster's Denis Leamy in particular used to salivate at the prospect of coursing him about a field for 80 minutes, feeding him poisoned tidbits and then watching him wither. Munster knew that if they got it wrong, though, it could go haywire. Like that New Year's Eve fixture in the RDS in 2005 when he put 25 points on them and orchestrated the other 10.

When it came to the Croke Park Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009, Contepomi started like a train only to be derailed by his own knee. By then, however, Leinster would not be stopped. Cullen and Jennings had brought back enough from their two seasons in Welford Road to make a real difference; the volcanic Michael Cheika made structural changes that were badly needed; and Brian O'Driscoll did his postman routine and delivered.

There was a time in Leinster when the senior players had the run of the place. And not for the better. Cheika gave them a lot of leeway and got away with it, unlike Ella who tried to treat everyone equally and was hurried out the side door. At its worst, on one side of the changing room there were the undroppables, and on the other were those who would be dropped in when the undroppables were off somewhere else.

This is a management issue in all squads, and it was only under Schmidt that Leinster got to grips with it. His influence has been extraordinary, and the departure will be difficult.

"Yeah, it's sad I suppose," says Jonny Sexton. "There are a few of us moving on so it will be a special last week together and yeah, very emotional and sad about it all. But hopefully we can send Joe off with a couple of trophies. To have three seasons and to have won three European trophies, hopefully we can send him and Isa off with another title."

Yesterday in Lansdowne Road was where they really wanted to be, but Saturday in the RDS will do nicely for a group that has come so far.

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