Leinster back where they most want to be, the place that has caused them the most hurt

The majority of this squad have known nothing but heartbreak in Champions Cup finals

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour and Alex Mitchell of Northampton compete in the air for the ball during the Investec Champions Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leinster know the road from here. It’s up to them now to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Their 20-17 win over Northampton in front of 82,300 fans in Croke Park on Saturday evening has got them back to a third Champions Cup final in a row, this time to play Toulouse. It’s the place they most want to be, it’s the place they’ve suffered the most hurt. Can’t have one without the other.

“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves over the last few finals,” said Jordan Larmour late on Saturday night. “Just about being in the moment when things aren’t going to plan. You can get a bit frantic and we’ve learned to use that, to try and get back to neutral, to try and get on the same page again.

“Talk about what’s going on – I think that’s something we’ve really grown as a group in doing. Handling the chaos, coming in a circle and realising what’s happening, saying it out loud so that we can get back on the same page. If we need to fix something up, we can do that. It’s going to be our third final in a row. We haven’t won one in a while. So we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”

We tend to think of Leinster as this hugely experienced juggernaut, full of grizzled warriors who’ve seen it all and done it all. But Larmour is one of only three players who started both Saturday night’s game and the 2018 final – Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong are the others. Pro sport is an endless churn – the likes of Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Seán Cronin were on that team. Joey Carbery was a sub.


The point is, for so many of the current Leinster side, winning a Champions Cup final would be entirely new territory in their career. And not just the newbies, either. Josh van der Flier, James Lowe, Caelan Doris, Ross Byrne – none of them have played a minute of a final Leinster have won. They know all about losing them though. All of them do.

“You have that feeling of losing and you just don’t want to feel it again,” said Larmour. “It drives you on a bit. But it doesn’t really come into your thinking, for me anyway, ‘What happens if we lose?’ It’s more just focusing on the job at hand.

“The worst thing you can do is go out into a final and not fire any shots and go into your shell a little bit. That’s something we’ve talked about as a group, not going into our shell, backing what we’ve done, the prep during the week, how hard we train, the detail the coaches give us. If you focus on all that stuff, then the result takes care of itself.”

Leinster's Ryan Baird is tackled by Alex Mitchell during the Investec Champions Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

This will be Leinster’s eighth final. The three-point margin over Northampton is the least by which they’ve ever won a semi-final. Given how dominant they were throughout most of the first hour, they will spend plenty of the build-up to the decider interrogating why that had to be so.

“It was very difficult,” said Rónan Kelleher, who came on as a second-half replacement for Dan Sheehan. “It was a really tough game. They are a quality, quality side and they really showed it throughout the whole 80 minutes. It was very difficult to defend against them, particularly in that last 20 minutes, but I’m just happy we got over the line in the end.”

Kelleher is one of those Leinster players who will be looking to scratch a huge itch in the final. This is his sixth season in the squad. He has played in the past two finals and has had nightmare experiences both times. Off injured after 14 minutes in 2022, on for Sheehan on 68 minutes last year only to be yellow carded three minutes later. The build-up to May 25th can’t be all about atoning for those days. It can’t not be about them either, not completely.

“Those experiences have really stood to us,” added Kelleher. “We learned a lot of lessons and you probably saw some of them in that La Rochelle game in the quarters and just for us as a group that experience has been really good. As tough as it was to go through, it has really stood to us now.

“So much work has gone in all year, the last three years really. So it is just making sure that we put our best foot forward in the final, leave no stone unturned and give ourselves the best opportunity of winning that final.”

So on they go. Leo Cullen said afterwards that Ciarán Frawley’s injury that saw him calve on the turf towards the end was just cramp so there’s no danger of him not being available for the last few weeks of the season. Cullen also dismissed the idea that they will take a pull in the URC ahead of the trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“We need to concentrate on the URC now for the next couple of weeks, so we’ll be picking strong teams,” Cullen said after the match. “We’ve done enough to get through. We know we can be better – that’s the bit we have to go after over the next couple of weeks.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times