Leinster’s Rob Kearney waves to the fans at the end of the match Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
IT WAS SIMPLY ferocious. From O’Driscoll’s early hit on Rougerie to the brutally combative last five minutes, Leinster v Clermont last Sunday was warfare.
This was a Clermont team with incredible physicality and quality throughout.
They dominated the set-piece with a ferocious authority in the opening 40 minutes and went in leading by six points at the break; a relatively hefty margin given the circumstances.
Yet, even at half time when things were looking grim, you still fancied Leinster to do it. But on what basis? Their scrum was getting pulverised, Richardt Strauss’s darts were off the board and, aside from the opening 15 minutes, they had no ball.
So why the blind faith? Because this is Leinster. This team has grown to such an extent that you now expect them to win, no matter what the circumstances.
There is an unerring belief shared by the fans and players alike that they will win every time they take the field. They firmly expect to. They were the only team in Europe that could have gone to Clermont on Sunday and won; simply because they believed they were going to. Even at half time when they the odds looked stacked against them, their belief was unwavering.
The Ladyboy Days
This is a far cry from the Leinster of old. Prior to the Heineken Cup triumph of 2009, the perception of Leinster was all style, no substance. This was the very antithesis of Munster who possessed a hard edge and a downright refusal to lose. The cultural divide between the provinces often highlighted Leinster’s shortcomings.
As recently as Decemeber of 2009, a headline in the Sunday Tribune read – ‘Leinster’s lacklustre ladyboys.’ This followed an away defeat to Castres in the Heineken Cup, which was described as ‘gutless’ in the same article. In reality, by this point, Leinster had moved on significantly from their ‘Ladyboy’ status.
The semi-final defeat to Perpignan in Lansdowne six years earlier was perhaps a more pertinent example of their soft underbelly; a game they really ought to have won.
This game was preceded by years of near misses and frustrating losses when their talent was undermined by a lack of drive when it really mattered.
A Shift in the Mindset
It is far from easy to change the mindset of an entire organisation but Leinster have managed to just that. There are multiple factors as to why this has happened but some stand out more than others.
Firstly, the powers that be at Leinster have been brave in their selection of head coaches and have appointed incredibly well in recent years. Matt Williams was the first to seriously implement change, both on and off the pitch.
The Australian once told me a story about how he had arranged a deal with the barmen in Kielys and Longs in Donnybrook to call him if Reggie Corrigan, Victor Costello or any of their allies were frequenting their establishments when they shouldn’t be. He also famously offered Gordon D’Arcy an ultimatum after the centre turned up to training with drink still on board from the previous night. Things were changing.
If Williams laid the groundwork in terms of acceptable standards off the pitch, then Michael Cheika took the province to the next level on it. Appointed in 2005, the first couple of years of Cheika’s reign saw Leinster produce some breath-taking rugby and notable wins but ultimately they continued to fall short when it really mattered.
This was to change in the latter years of his tenure as his team developed a real doggedness and began to evolve into a team who would fight with all their might for every inch. A prime example of this shift was the Heineken Cup quarter final victory over Harlequins in 2009 where any Leinster team of old would have folded under the intense pressure, but this side refused to. The ensuing win over old foes Munster in the semi final was a massive moment in the progression of this team also.
Eyebrows were raised when Joe Schmidt was the man selected to replace Cheika but, if anything, the affable New Zealander has improved this side further. They have retained that uncompromising will to win but married it with a brand of rugby that is both intelligent and devastating. Schmidt’s appointment now looks like an absolute masterstroke.
As with the coaches, Leinster have also recruited excellently in terms of foreign players. The likes of Rocky Elsom and Isa Nacewa in particular have helped elevate the province to new plains. In one of his first meetings with Brian O’Driscoll, Joe Schmidt asked him who the most professional player in the squad was. Without batting an eyelid, O’Driscoll replied: Isa Nacewa. You can’t underestimate the effect that someone like Nacewa has on the younger guys coming through.
Of course Leinster have been blessed with not only exceptional Irish talent but also players with a burning desire and admirable attitude. People like Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Leo Cullen and many more have set incredibly high standards in every regard for the emerging talent at the province.
Leinster are on the verge of winning their third Heineken Cup in four years and being acclaimed the best team ever in the competition. Ladyboys they most certainly are not.