Matt Williams: Leinster set to take first step in banishing Champions Cup final demons

No Munster Cinderella story in the offing while Ulster look to continue good run in England

Seeking redemption is part of the human condition. For as long as humanity has had the ability to muck things up, the desire to right the wrongs of the past has existed.

While chasing redemption is a powerful motivator, it can lead the pursuer down a rocky road. It is the pain of regret that drives us to seek the chance to set the record straight.

Redemption is part of the culture of the Judeo-Christian tradition that believes those who are lost can be found. From King David’s Old Testament regrets to finding the lost sheep and the return of the prodigal son, all are stories of redemption.

Not all of us are given a second shot, but if it is offered we should grab it with both hands.


Those who seek out redemption believe in the concept that humans can change and grow. Hope is the fuel that drives many to prove to themselves and the world that today, they are a better version of their past selves.

This is something I have witnessed in my own experience to be true.

After leading the Champions Cup final for 78 minutes and 14 seconds, only to see it slip away into the waiting hands of La Rochelle, Leinster are seeking that same redemption. That defeat created some wild emotional demons in blue hearts, ones that will eat away at the team unless exorcised.

Rarely have I seen players more emotionally devastated than the Leinster players were as La Rochelle lifted what the men in blue thought was their trophy.

For redemption, Leinster must first deal with the real threat that Racing 92 will pose in round one. Racing are currently in good form, running second in a very tight Top 14 competition that has only two wins between second and 11th.

Redemption for Leinster will not be found in a single victory over Racing. Their only hope of finding peace will be when a fifth star is embroidered above their golden harp in late May.

Munster are on a different journey. Once the belle of the Heineken Cup Ball, to the brave and the faithful the clock has struck midnight and they don’t even have a glass slipper. There are no Cinderella stories to see here folks. Keep moving on.

In last season’s quarter-final when Munster took on Toulouse, a club steeped in European lore, their Red Army of supporters sang them to powerful heights only to find defeat in the madness of a shootout, something we all know belongs in soccer and should never have been allowed to enter rugby culture.

Days like that burn into your heart like a branding iron.

Zombie is a pretty apt new theme song. I am sure the opposition teams must spend at least a few minutes in the team huddle asking, “Why are they singing about zombies?” The Fields of Athenry is a cute folksy tune that could not offend anyone unless your name is Trevelyan, but Zombie has become a new culturally appropriate piece of trash singing. Sledging the opposition by distracting them while aiming to inspire those who are in on the joke. That is unless you are Toulouse.

After the pain of the farcical shootout at the old Aviva coral, Munster owe Toulouse a big performance – and big it will have to be because Toulouse are currently playing in beast mode. Sitting at the peak of the Top 14 by eight points, they have been playing entertaining, high-tempo attacking rugby, all mixed in with huge defensive physicality and set plays of the highest quality.

Toulouse will be empowered by the brilliance of the best scrumhalf on the planet, Antoine Dupont, who is free to play after his four-week suspension for colliding with an air-born Cheslin Kolbe in the November test series was reduced to two weeks.

They have a gifted backline with players like Romain Ntamack, Melvyn Jaminet, Matthis Lebel, Thomas Ramos and Sofiane Guitoune, who except for a wretched run of injuries would have been close to national selection, and there is a bucket load of individual talent that can turn a match in seconds.

Like all great rugby teams, the backs might score the points but it is the pack that wins matches and the Toulouse forwards are an awesome bunch. With extreme physicality and leadership, the Toulouse pack are brilliant scrummagers, maulers, offloaders and can jackal over the ball with the best in the world.

Added to their undeniable physical power is the mental edge that Toulouse have over Munster in recent years. No matter how much passion and power Munster have thrown at Toulouse in the past few matches, it has just not been enough. For redemption, Munster will have to produce a performance far superior to the one that defeated South Africa A a few weeks ago.

Toulouse are not unbeatable but they are a team that is very well coached with a highly-talented playing group and they are currently in great form. For Munster to win their performance will have to be of the highest order.

In recent Champions Cup campaigns, Ulster’s away results against English clubs have been excellent. They will have a battle on their hands as they take on Sale Sharks, who proved last season that they are looking to make winning in Europe part of their club’s culture. With the exciting challenge of La Rochelle looming the week after, Ulster must deal with the here and now of Sale to set up a high pressure match against the French side in the roaring atmosphere of the Kingspan Stadium. Ulster understand that many great teams have fallen to the passionate and intimidating atmosphere produced by the faithful at the old Ravenhill.

The reigning Champions, La Rochelle, appear to be hitting peak form at just the right time. Like last year they have unexpectedly dropped a few games early in the season, but they seem to have been mere speed bumps to the juggernaut that Ronan O’Gara has created.

As the best club competition in the world gets underway we can expect the usual suspects, the great European clubs, steeped in Heineken Cup lore, to be fighting for supremacy with the Johnny come lately, La Rochelle, deep in the mix. What effect the South African teams will bring to the competition will be a story within itself.

As always with the Heineken Cup, a fascinating journey is about to commence.