Leinster rule Europe: What we learned from the weekend
From a new experience in the Basque country to Leinster v the IRFU and more
Leinster celebrate with the European Champions Cup. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The Basque experience
The living is easy down around Getxo’s old fishing port. Seemingly a ghost town, 13 metro stops from Sam Memés stadium, climb up the winding stone steps for a surge of Basque edification.
The Gothic baserri architecture provides intricate marvel, lumped beside gaudy apartment blocks.
This Bilbao final was really the Basque welcome. Exquisite food, smooth tinto, weather as moody as the alluring locals.
That’s also the only pity; greedy hoteliers – jacking up prices by 300 per cent in some accommodations – made it far too expensive for the modern Leinster support base to invade the city. Most travellers took up residence in Getxo, Santander, San Sebastián and so on.
It actually worked out well. This is a magical part of the universe.
They dabble in English, providing constant reminder of being truly separate from Spanish or French cultural norms.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere if EPCR care to listen; Newcastle 2019 must not be allowed a repeat fleecing of the normal sporting nomad.
Plaza Nueva did dance and spit fire as pintxos (tapas are for the Spanish) were gobbled whole with a small beer before bar staff asked how much you owed them.
This is rugby country. Bayonne and Biarritz – while over the invisible border in France – are ancient rugby enclaves, albeit laid low by a lack of wealthy benefactors in recent times. Serge Blanco made a regal appearance Friday night.
“What the f*** do we write if Racing win?” shrieked a veteran scribe as the witching hour slid past.
Defeat seemed inconceivable, even against proven French champions, and was only really considered in those nervy four minutes after the unreliable Teddy Iribaren made it 12-9.
Isa Nacewa settled what remains an forgettable game on a weekend when rugby abandoned its insular nature choose to peek outside the usual haunts.
Finally forced to travel for a meaningful European match for the first time since Sandy Park in December (Montpellier does not count) Leinster struggled. Certainly in attack. That’s credit to the Racing 92 defence as Garry Ringrose was smothered while trying to fling a killer pass on more than one occasion.
Luck played its part in victory. Racing lost Maxime Machenaud a few weeks ago, Dan Carter on Friday and Patrick Lambie after two minutes.
Carter has slotted a few important drop goals over the years. It mattered.
“We’re lucky we’ve got a great group of coaches, putting a huge amount of work in to make sure it gets better,” said Cullen.
Those coaches are corralled by Stuart Lancaster with Nacewa giving special praise to the kicking expertise of Emmet Farrell (a Leinster outhalf himself once upon a time).
“Some great leaders as well,” Cullen added. “How we go without Isa is going to be a big challenge. He is such a key figure, someone is going to have to step up now because he is an amazing individual. I couldn’t put into put into words how special he is in terms of his influence on the group, on the club. That’s something we need to figure out.”
The St Micahel’s boys are primed.
“We could listen to Johnny and Isa all week,” said Luke McGrath, who must be close to succeeding Nacewa as club captain.
James Ryan is already showing elders how to perform in a European final but his inevitable promotion to formal leadership may prove international not provincial.
If Rhys Ruddock and Seán O’Brien ever regain a full season of fitness both will feel like world class signings.
In the meantime, Scott Fardy should fill any leadership void. On his semi-final and final performances alone, Leinster would love to extend the 33 year old’s contract beyond next season but the IRFU may have other ideas (particularly if Gavin Thornbury keeps showing well in Connacht).
Leinster v IRFU
Leinster are their own worst enemy in many respects as winning the Champions Cup will not make Cullen’s job any easier, simply because they have been so successful despite the constraints placed upon them by David Nucifora and Schmidt.
Jordi Murphy and one other are being rerouted to Belfast.
Lancaster – who can expect a few lucrative offers himself in the next 12 to 18 months – has stated he wants to keep coaching Joey Carbery and that everyone should do what’s best for the player.
What’s best for the Carbery could be ensuring sufficient game time at outhalf with Ulster – or Munster (unless Bill Johnston comes good) – should some Springbok monster remove Sexton from the World Cup quarter-final.
It also means Ross Byrne is not suited in the stand if Leinster are defending their title at St James Park.
Plenty of horse trading still to be done.
Munster in the long grass
Munster is the only gang guaranteed to focus the mind but certain players – particularly Tadhg Furlong – look flogged. Furlong and the other Ireland players have had to quickly compartmentalise a Grand Slam, then a European title and probably any Pro 14 success to refocus on a gruelling three test series in Australia.
Something has got to give.
The 55 players used by Leinster this season indicates a patched together first team squad. On the road since the Lions tour in New Zealand last summer, Furlong was not himself on Saturday.
“We’ll try and get a team that is fresh and hungry to go out and do the business,” said Cullen. “It’s back at the RDS and the last time we played there we got beaten by Treviso. That’s still fresh in the memory.”
That defeat might motivate Cullen and the coaches but not the starters. He also mentioned the British and Irish Cup final defeat to Ealing Trailfinders over the weekend. Max Deegan and possibly Adam Byrne (if Nacewa has given enough) could be promoted.
“In many ways it’s a mental challenge...can we get ourselves to a place where we need to go and take on Munster.”
Jack Conan showed well off the bench, bouncing Teddy Thomas into touch, while Carbery and Ross Byrne must be keen to leave their imprint at the business end of the campaign.
Running for Leinster in late May could deny Sexton a valuable month in Australia with Schmidt’s Ireland.
How about Andrew Porter, Byrne and Carbery to finish out the Pro 14 campaign so Furlong, Sexton and Rob Kearney are ready for the already promised Michael Cheika war?
Also, how long before Leavy or Ryan break down?
Now, try telling all the above they are being rested for Munster.