Leinster believe they're in rightful place


FROM THE BLINDSIDE:SUCCESS IS what makes sport what it is. It’s the one thing everybody is after, which makes it the one thing that’s hardest to get your hands on. The flipside of that is learning what to do with it when it arrives. Because it’s so rare, because you spend far more of your life chasing it than enjoying it, it can be hard to know how to feel about success when it comes your way.

At least it can be hard to know that at the time. When you’re retired, you suddenly see it a lot more clearly. I woke up last Sunday morning feeling envious of the Leinster players who had just won the Heineken Cup, many of them for the third time.

Of all the experiences that go with winning the competition, that’s one that stays with you. Waking up the next morning in a glow no matter how battered and bruised you are, no matter how badly in need of a massage, no matter how bad the headache. That morning where you wake up as champions is unique.

It’s a morning of peace and tranquillity. You’re not worrying anymore, you’re not planning for the next session or aiming for the next target. Not for that morning anyway. For that morning you wake up and you’re around friends who are all feeling the same way. You’re looking around and everyone in your circle is on top of the world and feeling like they can walk on water.

I was thinking of those Leinster players on Sunday morning and how lucky they are to have this time in their lives together. When a long, tough season culminates in a Heineken Cup win, everyone around you feels the same excitement and enthusiasm. It’s sharing that with the people who you’ve gone through so much with that makes it one of the best mornings of your life.

We talk so much about dealing with defeats in sport that dealing with victories tends to fall by the wayside. With Munster, success came after failure so it was extra special when we eventually won a Heineken Cup. Because we’d lost finals and semi-finals, it was relief more than outright joy when we won it in 2006.

The second time round, we were able to enjoy it more and not just be swept up in the release it brought.

Joy is a complicated emotion that comes from different places depending on the situation. In 2006, winning meant never worrying again about what not winning said about us. Obviously we were ecstatic but we’d be lying if we said we weren’t going into it thinking what if we lost another one, what if the worst came to the worst again for us. When you overcome that, you do enjoy the experience, of course you do. But it’s joy based on pure relief.

There’s no doubt that we enjoyed the whole experience of winning the second one more. We weren’t worrying this time, we were nervous but only as nervous as we were supposed to be for any big game. The big difference was confidence. We were far more relaxed because we were far more confident than we’d been two years earlier. Delivering on that confidence and winning it for a second time felt different. It was a calmer sort of joy this time around.

You could see that in the Leinster players on Saturday. Even on the podium as they were lifting the trophy or on the pitch as they were walking around, they didn’t look like they did in Murrayfield in 2009. That’s because this win is different and these players are in a different place now. They believe they’re in their rightful place when they win the Heineken Cup. They don’t have to prove anything to anyone, they just have to go out and win for themselves.

Because when you get to that point, that’s who you’re doing it for. When we won that first time in 2006, we were falling over ourselves to pay tribute to the guys who had gone before but hadn’t won it, the likes of Gaillimh and Claw and the rest. Same with Leinster in 2009 when they name-checked the likes of Reggie Corrigan and Denis Hickie and so on. Because the first time you win it, you genuinely do feel that you owe a huge part of the success to those guys and that you’re sharing that win with them.

By the time you win a second or in Leinster’s case a third, you’re doing it for yourselves. It’s for your team-mates and your coaches and your backroom staff and the people you come to work with every day. You’ve seen what’s possible and now you want more because you know you can go and get more. You want to get on with stockpiling medals and trophies, to gather up as much as you can while you can.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Leinster had no big celebration day out on Sunday – they want to close out the double against Ospreys on Saturday and good luck to them.

If I was an Ospreys player looking at that, I’d be worrying about what was coming my way next weekend. They got caught on the hop last year by Munster and have obviously decided not to get caught again. It’s a big statement to make and just goes to show that they’re still learning and looking for ways to improve.

They’re a remarkable team now. The confidence they bring into games is so striking. When you get to their level with the talent they have and the work they’ve put in, they ooze confidence with everything they do. Guys play above themselves because they see their team-mates trying things and not being afraid to have a go. They see Rob Kearney kicking that drop-goal against Clermont or Brian O’Driscoll giving that back-handed offload in the final to set up the try.

That’s pure confidence and when it brings those results, it’s contagious. It makes you do things that you might not if you spent too much time thinking about them. Everything seems to stick and the ones that don’t, you don’t dwell on. You and your team-mates are all comfortable in your own skin and nothing seems beyond you. It’s a very rare state of mind to be in but Leinster have it at the moment. No wonder they want to make sure they do all they can to win the Pro12 final as well.

I really gave Ulster a chance at the weekend. Like most people I felt Leinster would win but I definitely thought Ulster had a chance. But with this Leinster team now, you’re talking about a group of players who think they’re going to win every time they go out. You can see that in them, that self-belief and certainty that they have the gears if they need them. They blew Ulster away in the end because a team with that level of confidence and skill can just be relentless to play against.

Leinster are a juggernaut and there’s no obvious reason that they will stop steamrolling people anytime soon. They’re the benchmark that everyone else has to raise their game to meet. They have the structure, they have the support base, they have the players. Some of those players will retire over the coming years and they won’t keep Joe Schmidt forever either but for now they set the standard for everyone else. They have to be favourites for the Heineken Cup again next year.

The one thing about success on this scale is that you never really see the end until it’s too late. Your luck can run out, things can go wrong in this game or you pick up injuries to key players.

After we won in 2008, we started the following year’s campaign in great form and we were full of the same confidence Leinster have now. We were going into every game full of self belief. What we didn’t fully realise was that everything can change very quickly if you lose one big game.

That happened when Leinster beat us in Croke Park in 2009. It dented our confidence and set us back pretty badly. We were playing well and if we’d gotten over Leinster, we were confident of winning our third Heineken Cup in four years. But that defeat stopped us in our tracks. We know we could have achieved more with that group of players but it didn’t work out that way.

Leinster won’t always be this dominant because sport doesn’t work like that. But for now, they’re the best side in Europe and it’s to their credit that they went out and played like it this season. The best team doesn’t always win the Heineken Cup but we can safely say that the best team has won it for the past two seasons. That’s pretty rare for a knockout competition in any sport and it’s a testament to their ability to just go out and be ruthless and win.

They were a sleeping giant. They’re not sleeping any more.