McLaughlin determined to fuel Leinster's high octane season
It did not have the same heightened sense of almost out of reach in that Leinster’s destiny was always in their own hands three years ago, but their 2009-10 meeting with French side Brive at the RDS is a reminder that Joe Schmidt does not have the monopoly over Michael Cheika in tense pool endings.
A bonus point in round five of that year’s competition became an imperative when Leinster lost their first match to London Irish and their grip on the Heineken Cup season seemed to loosen.
In the shadow of the opening defeat the team travelled to Brive, won a handsome 13-36 at Stadium Municipal and despite two tries from replacement Kevin McLaughlin (28) were one shy of the bonus point.
The return leg in round five at the RDS and Leinster scored less points in their 27-10 win but crucially earned a fourth try bonus point when cutting it fine when Brian O’Driscoll was sprung in the 79th minute.
“I wouldn’t say winning the match is irrelevant. Almost (irrelevant), fair enough,” said McLaughlin. Too modest to highlight his contribution in the first match, McLaughlin’s memory serves well to prop up the theory that Leinster are well equipped to keep to their side of the bargain in this potential Houdini act.
“Brive a few years ago? What happened that year? We lost our first game at home to London Irish and we beat Brive over there but we needed four tries as we were pushing for a home quarter-final,” he added.
“I think we scored a try towards the end. But I don’t think we’ve ever been in this tight a situation . . . I don’t think in my time in Leinster. There is definitely an element of extra pressure there. No doubt.”
There is belief in the squad that the numbers can crunch and part of that comes from the fear of a season shorn of the high octane the team has become used to. Back doors into the Amlin Challenge and Pro 12 matches provide decent drama but they are a bloodline beneath the European classic level.
“There’s an element of the season almost starting now or almost ending now. As a team we don’t like the thought of being out of Europe in January,” said McLaughlin.
“We kind of look at January as the make-or-break month for the team. Obviously the Rabo is starting to pick up now. We always concentrate hard on that. We’re a team that has been at the top of Europe for the last few years and want to stay there.
“It becomes harder every year because teams are trying to topple you and we’ve learned that this year, where Clermont outfought us in a couple of games. We’ve put ourselves in this position now so it’s going to be very much a case of hopefully our season is starting because we desperately don’t want it to end.”
In round two Leinster travelled to Parc y Scarlets and took a satisfying 13-20 win back to Dublin. What might cement their confidence on the issue of a four-try win on Saturday is the intel squirreled away as much as the score.
McLaughlin knows what to expect. They have played each other too often to step into any sucker punch knockout blows and it is his end of the ball game where Leinster will have to pick up if the recombined cutting ability of O’Driscoll, Kearney or Fitzgerald are to be any use.
“In our last game against them we struggled to break them down. I think they try and create scraps. They try to kick the ball at the break down and they’ve a lot of strays at the breakdown,” he explained.
“It’s a bit of a mess there. They just make it difficult for you to play from a defensive point of view and if you let them make it difficult for you it can be a dog fight and obviously we want to avoid a dog fight this weekend. If we can get the breakdown right is going to be absolutely key . . . and keeping quick tempo, quick ball and not allowing them to disrupt our ball.”
McLaughlin is level-headed and a communicator. He knows the value of nuance and luck and momentum and fate, the immeasurable units that go into turning a match and a pool like this one. He said it’s not the end of the world if Leinster don’t win.
In rugby terms that’s blasphemy.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to progress in Europe but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen and we’ll move on and we’ll stay positive . . .” he said.
But there’s a nagging doubt that’s embedded, just won’t budge. “It would be really tough,” he said glancing up.
Pool Three Lam agrees to succeed Elwood
Pat Lam is understood to have agreed to become the next Connacht head coach and the appointment of such a high-profile name as successor to Eric Elwood at the end of the season should be confirmed by the end of the week.
The 44-year-old, 35-times capped Samoan captain, who led Northampton to the club’s sole Heineken Cup triumph in 2000, was head coach with the Auckland provincial side for four years from 2004 to ’07, when he led them to a second Air New Zealand Cup as well as the Ranfury Shield in an unbeaten campaign.
He then had a four-year tenure as head coach of the Auckland Blues that came to an unhappy end last year. He vowed that his experience of the last year had made him a better coach.
Connacht have confirmed contract extensions for four players. New Zealand-born George Naoupu, Jason Harris-Wright, Mick Kearney and Eoin McKeon have all signed extensions that keep them with the province until at least the end of 2014/15 season.
Naoupu has been offered a two-year contract with the option to extend to a third, while Harris-Wright, Kearney and McKeon have also committed to signing two-year extensions.
“Our squad for next season and beyond is developing very well,” said Connacht chief executive Tom Sears.