Leinster can overcome behind-the-scenes decisions to cause an upset against Toulon
Place in Champions Cup final would change the complexion of Leinster’s season
Seán O’Brien is really starting to get into his stride for Leinster and should be a big influence against Toulon. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It’s hard to know what’s going on at Leinster at the minute. Looking in from the outside, there just seems to be a bit of chaos happening off the field. Of course, this wouldn’t be anywhere near as noticeable if the team was winning, but when results go wrong, people ask far more questions.
For example, the resigning of Isa Nacewa seems odd to me. Not in terms of ability or leadership qualities – both of which he has and both of which are clearly needed. But take away his name and answer this question – with the restrictions on foreign players that are in place, is it right that Leinster use one of their spots on a player who will be 33 in July and who hasn’t played a game of rugby for two years?
Actually, forget whether it’s right or wrong. Every club has to make its own decisions, so that doesn’t really matter. The better question maybe is what does this say about where Leinster see themselves? Doesn’t this feel like a bit of desperation?
What I never fully understood about Nacewa, though, was why he quit playing. I know he wanted to go back to New Zealand with his family but he was only 30 when he finished up. Why take a coaching job instead of finding a playing job? Was his appetite gone? Does that mean it’s back now? How does he change his mindset from being retired to a vital member of a playing group again?
Any way you look at it, there’s a big risk involved here for Leinster. There’s no guarantee he’ll be as good again. They obviously want him to have an influence beyond what he’ll bring to the games and they hope he will keep the standards high when the Irish internationals aren’t available.
But I very much doubt that Leinster would be doing this if the season had gone according to plan. If they weren’t fighting for their lives in the Pro12, it’s hard to imagine they’d be turning back the clock like this. I know you have to react to circumstances to some extent, but this seems very off the cuff. It doesn’t sound like long-term planning.
And if a big reason for bringing him back is the experience and professionalism he offers, how does that square with the limbo that Gordon D’Arcy finds himself in? Again, the ins and outs of that situation are something only the club and the player know but the one thing we can say for certain is that D’Arcy isn’t getting the sort of soft landing to his career that other guys got in the past.
Leinster announced contracts for 27 players last week and D’Arcy isn’t one of them. He definitely wants to play on, he’s definitely good enough and his experience and professionalism are are beyond question. Yet Leinster look to have left him hanging.
There’s no sentiment in rugby. It’s professional sport and it’s ruthless – never more so than at the end of a player’s career. When you’re looking for what will probably be your last contract, what you’ve done in the past is only of so much use. The powers-that-be have to find a fit that is right for everyone, regardless of what success you were part of previously.
But Gordon D’Arcy isn’t some washed-up old pro hanging on for one more gig. He’s not the type to pick up a pay cheque as a kind of reward for past glories or anything like that. This is a player who isn’t a million miles away from being in the reckoning for a place in the World Cup squad. A few injuries to the centres and he’ll be right on the cutline.
And if he doesn’t go to the World Cup, so much the better for Leinster. He has been part of everything good they’ve done over the past 15 years, he is still performing to a high level and if it was me, I’d say it was a no-brainer to sign him up for another year.
The wider question is the most important one – would any of this be happening if they were winning? These decisions become a lot easier in a happy environment. They also get a lot less focus put on them. Deciding on the make-up of your squad is always guesswork to some extent but when you’re winning you get the benefit of the doubt. The necessity for change isn’t as great and there’s a lot more positivity around the place.
Leinster have brought a lot of pressure on themselves with poor performances going back a few months now. We’ve written about them here and the reasons for them, so there’s no need to go in to that again. On the face of it, there’s a real chance their season could peter out against Toulon on Sunday.
But the great thing about sport is that the opposite is also true. Sunday can also be the making of Leinster’s season. One result, one 80-minute performance and the string of defeats in the Pro-12 will be forgotten about. It won’t matter that they’ve lacked leadership or that they’ve conceded too much or that they’ve shown a worrying inability to close out games. One result changes everything.
And I honestly think they have a right chance of pulling it off. When we talk about how poor Leinster have been, we’re not really talking about the team that will take the pitch on Sunday. That’s a team of world-class players, with internationals lining out in just about every position.
It’s a team with the likes of Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy really starting to get into their stride. A team made up of a string of experienced players who know that what has gone before doesn’t matter in the slightest. At this point in the season, you deal with reality, not perception. And the reality is that these players are 80 minutes away from a European final. Nothing else matters.
Yes, their backs are against the wall but so what? Munster have shown in the past two seasons that success in these semi-finals against the big French teams isn’t impossible. Okay, they came up short both times against Clermont and Toulon but they were in the mix with 15 minutes to go both times. Are we really saying that Leinster don’t have the players to get themselves into that sort of position?
This is a defining moment, whether they win the game or not. If they don’t perform in a game like this, then the season has been pretty much a write-off. I just don’t see experienced Test players lying down and taking their beating like that. Especially when they’ve spent so much of the build-up being written off.
Never underestimate the power of being told you’re not good enough. It still has a part to play, no matter how professional the game becomes. When you’re under pressure, when you’ve been losing, you get to a point where you’re just sick and tired of hearing how crap you are.
If you’re not good enough, you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. But these guys are definitely good enough and if they focus on the huge prize on offer and get away from the negativity that has surrounded them recently, I believe they can pull this off.