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Sexton’s leadership vacuum will be felt as Leinster can’t replicate the emotion of La Rochelle match

Semi-final success will turn on ‘who finds the right words at the right time and provides that focal point of leadership’

Against La Rochelle in the quarter-final Leinster's Jordan Larmour reminded us how dangerous he can be with sublime running and subtle distribution. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Experience teaches players that to assume can make an ass out of “you and me”, as the phrase goes. A favourable draw is a nice bonus but unless a team is equipped with the right mental and physical attributes, home advantage is meaningless other than having a short walk to familiar watering holes to drown your sorrows.

I came to understand this first-hand in the 2003 European Cup when Leinster romped through the pool phase winning all six matches, home and away, against Bristol, Montferrand and Swansea. The upshot was that, if successful we would not have to leave Lansdowne Road in the knockout phase of the tournament all the way to the final which would be staged at the home of Irish rugby.

A convincing win over Biarritz Olympique in the quarter-final meant that we faced Perpignan at the penultimate stage, the prize a crack at the then-European royalty of Toulouse or Munster. There’s no nice way of saying this, at the time we didn’t cope adequately with the pressure of knockout rugby.

We had talented individuals with huge potential but struggled to bundle it successfully into a winning package. It wasn’t down to a lack of effort, but we didn’t possess the cohesion and mental toughness to handle the unique pressure of knockout rugby. There is generally another chance with a pool game but when there’s no safety net, it’s important not to let that pressure suffocate the game plan.


Perpignan, true underdogs, played with belief and spirit despite being down to 14 players twice during the game. The hard truth was that they wanted it more than we did. We spent the game trying to find that playing rhythm that would free us up to unleash our patterns; we didn’t manage it.

A dejected Gordon D'Arcy and Reggie Corrigan of Leinster after defeat to Perpignan in the European Cup semi-final of 2003. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

In one moment, I remember being slow off the ground, and a big mitt belonging to Malcom O’Kelly pulled me to my feet. The big second row, in his prime, shouted at me to get going.

I’m not sure that belief was there in the squad at the time; undone by some early mistakes, we came unstuck as a team. Perpignan preyed on that weakness and there wasn’t much if any experience within the team to fall back on in moments like that.

Failure is an education process from which teams can learn. Those lessons, that pain can make a difference down the line. When Michael Cheika came in as head coach at Leinster, he encouraged us to embrace failure, to build the resilience that comes with disappointment. He hated losing more than he loved winning and that attitude trickled down to his players.

He got the right people in the right places and created an aggressive attitude to failure or mistakes that helped generate a winning mentality. The proof of our increased mental toughness was borne out in narrow, hard-fought wins away to Harlequins and Toulouse, and it allowed us to turn the tide in our duels with Munster.

The success that followed was underpinned by that tempering process, adding mental steel to physical prowess. The pay-off was winning trophies. In any team, there is a natural cycle or a limit as to how long players can make sacrifices without success before it dulls the edge or belief wanes.

The challenge then is to manage the turnover of players and get that balance right. Age profile, attitude, and the capacity to develop are important considerations. Winning is a habit and it is one that Leinster have lost of late, their last trophy being the 2021 URC title.

Champions Cup Final, San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao, Spain 2018, where Leinster beat Racing 92; Leinster's James Ryan, Jack Conan and Jordan Larmour celebrate. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

In the Champions Cup that stretches back further to 2018, when they beat Racing 92 in the final. It’s likely that just nine of the squad — it would be 10 but for James Ryan’s injury — from that day will be involved in Saturday’s semi-final against the Northampton Saints at Croke Park.

As the squad continues to rotate over the next couple of years this season feels like one of those rare opportunities to re-establish the winning culture within Leinster. The victory over La Rochelle was personal in so many ways, pain pushing them to a very emotionally and physically aggressive performance.

This week there won’t be the same emotional energy and that’s not to disrespect Northampton. The focus was clear three weeks ago and the individual performances reflected that. Ross Byrne played one of, if not his best game in a Leinster jersey, engaging the line in attack and looking comfortable and effortless with the ball in hand.

Jordan Larmour seized the opportunity and reminded us all how dangerous he can be with sublime running and subtle distribution. As players they rose to the challenge, and with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps resting players for the trip to South Africa after a match like that might be the right call.

Would a handful of tired frontline bodies have made a difference in the two URC defeats? Arguably not enough, but the chance to rest and recover at this stage in the season is a rarity, especially in a post-World Cup year where there are a lot of miles in Leinster legs as bulk suppliers to the Irish squad.

I’ve written before that to win once you hit the knockout stage the performance must improve with each match to claim the trophy. The stage was set for Jacques Nienaber in the quarter-final and he delivered brilliantly.

This weekend might be a little different. The leadership vacuum left by Johnny Sexton will be tested more rigorously than in the quarter-final because Leinster won’t be able to replicate the emotional intensity going into the La Rochelle match. It’s about who finds the right words at the right time and provides that focal point of leadership.

Motivation drives individual responsibility in preparation which then feeds into the collective. In my experience when saddled with expectation you find out a huge amount about yourself and your team. Leinster’s blend of experience, ambition, desire, tinged with the pain or recent failures, should once again, take them to the threshold of a fifth star.