Why Leinster star Kevin McLaughlin is still fighting in the blue corner
Kevin McLaughlin believes Leinster will bounce back after some big-name exits, writes John O'Brien
Two years ago, as Leinster celebrated the province's second Heineken Cup victory, Kevin McLaughlin visited his old school, Kildare Place in Rathmines, and took the trophy and his old classmate Jonathan Sexton along for company. The reception they received astonished him. The kids shared an obvious passion for Leinster that didn't feel fake or contrived in any way. McLaughlin thought back to his own school days when rugby was accepted, but never fully embraced.
So the old memories came flooding back. The lunchtime soccer games in the playground, him, Sexton and another friend once carving out their sporting legend by taking on the whole class and almost going unbeaten for an entire school year. They fed their obsession by decamping to Sexton's house every weekend, watching match after match on the telly, some compelling force he can't quite understand drawing them both towards the blue half of Glasgow.
In the youthful dreams they shared back then, through all the hours they kicked footballs to each other in the local park, McLaughlin can't recall a moment that harked to a common breakthrough in the blue of Leinster. That was simply how the stars aligned. He remembers how obsessive Jonny could be about even the most rudimentary of kickabouts. But his breakthrough at Leinster was tough and hard-earned. Just like his own. And people, he thinks, tend to forget that.
"He had a tough road," McLaughlin says. "If you ask Jonny, I think he'd tell you that himself. It was anything but smooth. He had Felipe (Contepomi) there ahead of him and he wasn't getting off the ground. He was very frustrated. Outhalf is a position you have to spend a long time learning the trade. Especially the kind of player Jonny is."
He was as shocked as anyone when the news filtered through late last season that Sexton would be off for pastures new in France. In all his years at the province, McLaughlin had yet to encounter a more likely candidate to be a Leinster lifer. He doesn't imagine it will disrupt things too much, though. Leinster have lost big players in the past and will, assuredly, do so again in the future. Life, as it always did, would go on.
"It's funny. You always thought what it'd be like if he left and now that he's gone, you realise the show must go on and it does. Others will always step forward. That's something we'd be proud of in Leinster. Like when Rocky Elsom left everybody was asking who's going to replace him? When Mal O'Kelly retired, it was the same. Who's going to replace him? We always had guys who stepped up."
It was McLaughlin himself, of course, who stepped into the breach when Elsom departed for home four years ago. From a time when his future at Leinster seemed so precarious that he had explored an opening at the now-defunct Anglo Irish Bank, McLaughlin has helped the province to three major titles, although success hasn't conferred the gift of complacency. Reminders that he has come to prominence at a time when the Irish back-row production line has never been busier are never far from any discussion.
"It's the one area where we never have to recruit a foreigner," he says. "Since Rocky left, we've had no foreign back-row players here. Ireland just seems to be a factory for young back-row players. In some ways it's difficult because opportunities, especially at international level, don't come along as often as you'd like. On the other hand it means you constantly have to move forward. If you're not improving, you lose your place.
"I felt like I played better last year than at any stage in my career. But I still feel if I don't improve again this season . . . Like, there's no point in playing this sport if you're not trying to improve. That's how I look at it. There's no reason for standing still.
"That's the way rugby has gone as a whole. Even from 10 years ago, the standard has gone through the roof. The skill levels, the power and strength, are all phenomenal now compared to what they were."
McLaughlin doesn't buy the theory that because Leinster have lost some big-name players and a prized coach along with it, their ambitions will be necessarily limited this season. The idea that they are somehow a team in transition sounds too much like a handy cop-out for a group of players who have grown used to winning consistently. As an excuse for coming up short, McLaughlin can't imagine anything lazier or more self-indulgent. And who knows? Maybe change will reinvigorate them.
"Like I said, Jonny's a huge loss. Nobody would dispute that. But I'd say Ian [Madigan] might have started 50 per cent of our games at outhalf last season. In the Rabo, he was pretty much at 10 the whole year. On the wing, Isa [Nacewa] will be a hard guy to replace. But we've always managed to fill boots and we will again. We're positive going into the season. We've a new coach and training's been going really well. Matt O'Connor has exciting ideas about the way we're going to play the game."
He has mixed feelings about Schmidt's departure to the national job. Schmidt understood his game and knew instinctively when to play him and when he needed a break and he'll miss their daily interaction on the training ground. And yet, he figures it can't do his prospects of adding to the six caps he's won much harm. Not that he's expecting any soft favours. Just that Schmidt knows what he can bring to the table. It's not a disadvantage anyway.
And so far he's been encouraged by what he's seen of O'Connor around the Leinster set-up. More like Schmidt than not, he thinks. The same all-consuming passion for the game, the same precious clarity about what he expects from his players, the same focus on skills and keeping ball in hand. As seamless a change as any of them could have anticipated or dared to hope for.
"I think all in all we've been pretty lucky with our coaches," McLaughlin says. "I got a lot from Joe. I think we all did. He was always very clear about what he expected from you and that's what guys want going into a game. They like to know where they stand. And Matt has continued on that theme. He's definitely the right guy to bring us along."
It excites him too to think of guys like Schmidt and O'Connor and the other provincial coaches – "real rugby heads" – working in tandem for the common cause of the national team. "I think Joe working closely with the provinces will be a great thing. So that when guys come into the Ireland camp, they don't have completely different ideas in terms of attack and defence. Hopefully, all four provinces play good rugby and that'll translate into good international performances as well."
For now, there's just the imperative of hitting the ground running and building enough momentum for a big season. On Friday, Northampton, old and current rivals, dropped into Donnybrook for a ding-dong confrontation that had the moniker pre-season friendly only in name. A week on will see them in Cardiff for their opening League match against Cardiff, the first skirmishes in Europe not far beyond that.
Because Leinster didn't progress beyond a tough pool stage last season, there was a temptation to feel they had endured an underachieving and frustrating time, but McLaughlin has no truck with that sentiment. He recalls the lovely day in late May when they hosted Ulster in front a packed house in the Pro12 final at the RDS and thinking that nothing – not two Heineken Cup winner's medals, not his Ireland debut against Italy in 2011 – could match the magic of that balmy evening.
"That win is probably the high point of my career," he says. "Because we'd lost three finals in the previous four years and the fact it was in the RDS, even though it was Ulster's home game and half the crowd were Ulster supporters, it was a special occasion. Just the heartbreak of the Ospreys game last year: I don't think we really got over that all season. Ask anyone who played in that game. It really hurt. The nature of the way we lost. It felt so good to be able to put that right. The thought of losing to Ulster in the RDS was too much, especially as we'd lost to them two weeks before that."
For McLaughlin, it represented a storming end to another fine season for Leinster. He felt slightly frustrated that Schmidt opted to rest him for the Amlin Cup final against Stade Francais, but he understood too. A week earlier he'd had a massive game against Glasgow in the Pro12 semi-final and that had taken its toll. If a week's rest meant he'd be ready for the joust against Ulster, then he couldn't complain about the deal.
At Leinster he knows that's the reality of life as a back-row forward: the physical toll it exacts, the fierce competition that exists for places. He played 20 games last season and, if he still felt broken up at times, there's an insatiable hunger there for more. He looks ahead to the Heineken Cup pool draw, against the French side Castres, Northampton and their old friends, the Ospreys. No added motivational gimmicks will be required.
"It's a massive challenge," he says. "But when we won the Heineken Cup in Cardiff, the group we had that year – Clermont, Racing Metro, Saracens – wasn't any easier. It's something that can work in your favour. You've got to beat the best teams anyway. That year we'd to beat Toulouse and Leicester in the quarter- and semi-finals. If it happens that you beat all the best teams in the group, then you can go into the knockout stages with huge confidence. That's the plan anyway."
For Leinster and McLaughlin these days, the plan has been working out more often than not.
Kevin McLaughlin was speaking at the recent launch of Under Armour's performance footwear which will be available in retail and online in Lifestyle Sports and at www.underarmour.com