I saw a post this week in a Facebook group asking people for their favourite memories of the Heineken Cup. As a Leinster fan, my mind immediately shot back across the many incredible days out that the team has given us since 2009. Munster in Croker, the famous ‘game of two halves’ in Cardiff, the Ulster demolition in Twickers and even the Clermont QF in a rocking RDS.
But ask any Leinster fan of a certain vintage to offer an opinion on the most important Leinster victory of the professional era, and it’s likely you’ll get a slightly more obscure answer back.
It was a Sunday lunchtime in April 2009. Quins were riding high in the Premiership, had taken apart a pretty tough pool, and were welcoming an Irish raider to the Stoop, ready to repeat their performance against Ulster from earlier in the year.
Leinster, meanwhile, were trudging along, coming off the back of a mixed pool performance, including a loss to Castres, and relying on a big, smart pack to get them through, along with Kurt Mcquilkin’s impenetrable defensive system.
One almighty siege of an 80 minutes later, Leinster, so often derided for a soft underbelly, seemed to finally have shown that mettle.
This time around, the stakes are slightly lower, the teams much changed, but Leinster will be relying on some similar attributes.
I read a book by James Kerr recently called ‘Legacy’, in which he picks apart the mystique and purposeful culture of the All Black set-up. One of the most interesting passages from the book revolves around leadership, and more specifically, devolved leadership.
After France in WC 2007, the AB coaching team decided that enough was enough, and on-pitch leadership needed to be ramped up. They set about creating a system whereby they chose a group of 5-6 leaders within the team. These men would control what happened during a game, making decisions, taking the temperature of their team-mates and generally keeping control in the heat of a test battle. Off the pitch, senior players were given a portfolio of responsibilities, and asked to ‘pass the ball’ – bring younger players into the culture and set-up.
According to Graham Henry:
‘Dual leadership was a very important part of our success. Indeed, perhaps the reason for that success’
If I had one critique of the Leinster set-up in the past 3-4 years, it would be that this leadership production line perhaps hasn’t produced enough, while NIQ recruitment hasn’t been up to the same standard either.
We can have the Matt O’Connor debate till the cows come home. Indeed, it’s one that’s currently raging across the province.
But one thing many are missing is the sheer lack of leaders in this Leinster team, particularly when you remove internationals.
In Schmidt’s time, Nacewa, Jennings, Boss, Hines, McLaughlin and others would step up during the test window.
For a variety of reasons (injury, loss of form, age and poor replacements) the same umbilical cord between management and players doesn’t seem to exist. Last weekend, Reddan, Gopperth and Kirchner were three of the most experienced players on the pitch, in pivotal positions, particularly given how much kicking went on.
Each had a stinker, and quite obviously, showed no game nous at all from where I stood.
Granted, Jennings was injured and Ruddock benched, but the pack too was devoid of that edge, and it certainly showed.
Going back to the Stoop.
On the field in April 2009, Leinster mauled, tackled and rucked like tigers. Like the year before, when a solid pack led the way to a Magners title, the team relied on the basics to get it through.
On the day, the pack leadership group included Mal O’Kelly, Leo Cullen, Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, with Felipe Contepomi and BOD out the back for a bit more comfort.
Each of these players have either captained Leinster, or reached over 100 caps for the province.
On Sunday, Leinster’s pack leadership team will probably consist of Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip. While the first two have captained sides, and Heaslip is a former international captain, it doesn’t have the same look about it, does it?
Leinster are not playing fluid rugby. The style has definitely changed to become more forward and size dominated, rightly or wrongly, and in a funny way, this should suit against Quins. I’ve been slightly amused this week at the continuing pompous outpouring from ‘fans’, that ‘Leinster have to play a certain way’ or ‘I won’t renew my season ticket if we don’t start entertaining’.
Cups aren’t won in December, but they sure as hell can be lost, meaning on Sunday, winning rugby needs to be prioritised, whatever that looks like. But to do that, our returning leaders must stand up and be counted. A pack of McGrath, Cronin, Ross, Toner, McCarthy, Ruddock, Ryan and Heaslip may be a little less experienced than the one I referenced above, but it has more than enough to take on a faltering English side away.
Just like Cheika in 2009, this trip to London feels like it could either be era defining if it goes wrong.
But if our pack leaders stand up, and get support from the experienced heads out the back, there should be enough to eek out a win.
After that, the rest of the season opens up, injured players return, and anything can happen.
Just like that famous day in the 2009.