It was supposed to be the watershed moment, or perhaps more accurately a jumping-off point from which Leinster would finally be able to propel themselves to European glory. A first victory on French soil, a 23-20 win over Montferrand in December 2002, allowed us to surge through the pool unbeaten.
If we continued to win, we would play all three Heineken Cup knockout matches, including the final, at Lansdowne Road. But after beating Biarritz Olympique, that dream was dashed by Perpignan in a semi-final. It was a cataclysmic performance on so many levels from flawed selection to a landslide of individual errors to acute collective mental fragility that would linger for several seasons.
The flesh was willing but the spirit was weak. There is no denying that we had the talent but lacked application and cohesion to make it count. As one of the younger players I remember being yanked off the turf by Malcolm O’Kelly. I was slow to get off the ground at a ruck, and he let me have it, verbally, both barrels.
He was one of the best secondrow players in the world at the time and had high standards, which he demanded first and foremost of himself but also from his team-mates. He couldn’t accept my dilly-dallying. To this day I can hear those words, they still burn.
To be a successful team, to be in contention to win trophies, there cannot be a disparity of effort between team-mates. For Leinster and myself, the challenge to understand and change sufficiently took much longer than it should have; another six years until we were able to realise that European dream.
Effort and application require “zero rugby talent” to borrow one of my favourite Paul O’Connell phrases, yet it is at the core, in the DNA, of all successful teams. These moments or decisions that usually get no credit take a huge amount of mental resilience and trust in your team-mates.
I would encourage anyone to go back and look at Josh van der Flier’s performance in Leinster’s victory over Ulster at the weekend.
The influence that Andrew Porter brought to bear was paramount on Leo Cullen’s side being able to turn around a 19-point deficit despite being a man light following Cian Healy’s red card, but it was the world player of the year’s astonishing work-rate on behalf of his team that was most striking.
When Leinster were forced to sacrifice Jimmy O’Brien to bring on Porter, van der Flier was given another task, to patrol the blindside wing. That was on top of all his regular duties.
The home team elected to keep a full complement up front, in theory risking a potential weakness in the backfield. But in practice van der Flier covered that diligently and to great effect.
It speaks volumes of his qualities as a footballer, which earned him his recent global gong, but also his sheer determination and resilience as an athlete, which fuel the engine.
He harassed Billy Burns and carried the ball regularly but arguably most impressive was the ground he covered to support James Lowe and Hugo Keenan in the backfield. A player that delivers with this level of consistency, with these high value moments and an utter selflessness in work-rate, is worth so much to the fabric of a team.
Last week I questioned whether Ulster would have the mental strength to be able to manage their ambition in a practical way on the pitch. The answer, purely on the evidence of what transpired at the RDS, was an emphatic ‘no’.
There was a disparity in quality in one or two areas of the two teams but, for Ulster head coach Dan McFarland, a primary concern was how they failed to capitalise on a 22-3 lead, with a man advantage for the remainder of the game. Even before Healy’s dismissal there were one or two fault lines, such as the Ulster scrum, that were beginning to creak.
There is no doubt that Ulster rattled Leinster with those three well-taken tries but instead of taking that lead to the dressingroom and being able to recalibrate the game plan to maximise the advantage of the conditions, they conceded five points that became seven with Ross Byrne’s magnificent touchline conversion.
Ulster had six forwards on the bench. To me that clearly shows how much the Leinster pack sits rent-free in the Ulster psyche. I often question the logic of the 6-2 split when the team in question is not South Africa or Argentina. If you are not replacing like for like, in size and quality, then it is perhaps acknowledging a weakness.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge bad luck, too, from an Ulster perspective. Burns shipped an ankle injury early on and with no replacement option and John Cooney’s subsequent misfortune, it compounded a poor decision.
The inability of Ulster’s key decision-makers to find space in the Leinster backfield, where they should have looked to dominate territory in the second half was spectacularly poor. Instead, Leinster drew them into close quarter combat upfront that completely minimised the effect of being a player down.
Ulster were eventually reduced to a kicking strategy that not only did not stress Leinster, but it was poorly executed. Such was the dominance of the Leinster pack, that even when Ulster did try to move them around and kick into areas where there might not be cover, it was so laboured and pedestrian that the home side adequately covered it with a minimum of fuss.
Ulster’s two yellow cards for James Hume and Nick Timoney were a manifestation of Leinster pressure. They were a man up before Garry Ringrose scored and they had equal numbers when the Leinster captain grabbed his second before Timoney’s departure.
The defeat should grate. The synopsis will make for a stark review. They enjoyed a superb start, were 19 points and one player to the good against a Leinster team struggling for rhythm and without their principal playmaker, Johnny Sexton. Those facts should have ensured only one outcome.
But instead, Ulster left Dublin with a significant injury list and a big gut check in advance of the start of the Champions Cup this weekend. It’s unlikely Cooney will make it, possibly Tom Stewart too, both of whom risk being missed given their quality and form. But the potential absence of captain Iain Henderson could be the most debilitating.
Ulster’s demise at the RDS was hastened after his departure. Sale Sharks are an uncompromising, physical side while it’ll hardly get any easier the following week when the European champions, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, visit Belfast. Prepping for those games off the back of a playing implosion will offer a rigorous examination of the coaching and playing group.
McFarland may find out a little bit more about the group over the next fortnight. He will have to minimise the damage while finding a way to generate momentum. He might find some of it by rewarding consistent performers like Stewart Moore and, perhaps, adopting a win-at-all-costs approach for the Sale match.
While Ulster need to engage in a little soul searching, Leinster make the short trip to Le Havre, where they will undergo a rigorous examination of their credentials as Champions Cup contenders. Sexton’s fitness is crucial to the team’s wellbeing.
Tadhg Furlong’s absence can be offset with the Jason Jenkins/Michael Ala’alatoa combination at this stage, but Leinster’s attack fires differently when Sexton is at the helm. While Ulster were unable to capitalise on Leinster inaccuracy with the ball in hand, Racing 92 are more than capable of turning errors into points.
The Parisian club lie second in the French Top 14 and enjoyed very comfortable wins – notably without Finn Russell at the helm – in their last two outings. They hosted Clermont Auvergne in Paris, ripping them apart on a fast track, and conjured a slightly more orthodox if no less impressive win against Toulon in the south of France.
There is a growing history between these two clubs, that includes the 2018 Champions Cup final, Leinster’s last success in the tournament, so there will be plenty of spice to the encounter.
Racing look a little different this season, not a run-of-the mill French team any more, one that traditionally threw money at the problem. They still have huge financial clout but there is more of a home-grown look and they are extremely well coached, to boot. They have that esprit de corps.
It’s a massive test for both teams in Le Havre, especially at this point in the season. There is very little wriggle room in four-match pools to absorb a defeat and still advance to the knockout stage; it will be fascinating to watch who lands the first blow in terms of the result.