Leinster may be European aristocracy, they may have four stars on their jersey, and they are annual contenders, but the majority of the current squad have only known bitter disappointment rather than the sweet taste of success.
Of the 23-man squad on duty in last week’s quarter-final win away to Leicester, two are serial winners (Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy started all four final wins in 2009, ‘11, ‘12 and ‘18) and another eight also played a part in the final when Leinster beat Racing 92 in Bilbao four seasons ago.
However, including Rhys Ruddock (who was an unused sub in Bilbao) and James Lowe (who missed out on the 23 that week) the other 13 have never played in a winning European final, and of those seven have experienced some or all of the pain inflicted upon Leinster in the defeats by Saracens in the final three seasons ago and quarter-final two seasons ago, as well as last year’s semi-final defeat by La Rochelle.
The point being that this is a team full of players for whom winning a Heineken Champions Cup winners medal on the pitch is something they’ve witnessed in some shape or form, but never experienced.
Rónan Kelleher, a replacement in that quarter-final loss behind the Aviva’s closed doors against Saracens and a starter in the Stade Marcel-Deflandre a year ago, is a classic case in point. For him and others, this is a rather large box to tick.
“Yeah, it is. Growing up, looking at the teams from ‘09, ‘11, 2012, and only being in the academy when they won in Bilbao, that’s obviously a massive driver for me and a driver for a lot of the other younger lads in the squad who know we haven’t reached the mountain top. We haven’t done that yet, so it’s just about making sure we’re putting our best foot forward.”
“Obviously we can rely on all the older heads that have been there and done it before like Johnny and Church (Healy) and all the boys, so we are relying on them to share those experiences and what it takes to win those big games.”
Kelleher was undoubtedly one of those Leinster players who needed that game against Leicester, having only played 50 minutes over the previous 12 weeks due to the shoulder injury he sustained in the second round of the Six Nations in Paris. He had been brought to South Africa but was a late withdrawal from the squad against Cell C Sharks with a shoulder knock before being brought back for the training week in UCD to prepare for the Leicester game.
“For me I probably needed that time to continue training with the lads in South Africa. I was hoping to get a bit of game time under the belt but it just didn’t work out that way and then that training week was vital to get everyone on the same page and just prepped well for Leicester.
“So we were a bit lucky in a way that we had the two week run in, really, just to get all our plays and detail sorted and it just stood to us. I know there was an argument that it would have been better to have a game but I do think the lads prepped very well and we showed in the first half that we executed the plan well.”
Collectively, Kelleher felt that the Welford Road performance showed they still had improvement to make in “our attacking shape and defensively”, and while he felt the scrum battle went “pretty well”, Toulouse may present a sterner and more complete challenge.
“We have been looking at them and they’re a class outfit. They showed it last year when they won the double, but also a lot of their boys were in the Grand Slam winning team for France so they’ve shown what they can do. We obviously need to be switched on this weekend.”
On foot of watching Munster extend the reigning champions to 100 minutes and a penalty shoot-out, Kelleher doubts this will drain Toulouse unduly.
“There’s two ways of looking at it, really. You could say that they’ll be fatigued after travelling back and forth to Ireland between last week and this week but then again, I suppose they had the earlier kick off and would have been home at a similar time to us when we came back from Leicester.
“So I suppose it’s kind of an even keel. We do have home advantage and we’re able to train here all week but I don’t think that will play too much into it, really.
They’re a quality side, they’ve shown that they can win in Ireland. I think they’ve won all five of their last five games in Ireland, so they’ve shown they’re well able to travel.”
Saturday’s semi-final at the Aviva Stadium could re-acquaint up to nine of the Toulouse contingent and 13 from Leinster who were involved in that Six Nations tie in Paris in what proved to be a title decider, and rather remarkably, this includes all four hookers.
As with Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, so Toulouse have the French first and second choice hookers in Julien Marchand and Peato Mauvaka.
“They’re both quality operators, we’ve seen that over the last two or three years. They’ve both excelled,” said Kelleher. “It’s similar to here in that it is such a competitive position. They’re both incredible ball carriers, good in defence and good in their poach so they are kind of all-rounders.”
Sheehan has made the point that rather than seek pastures new due to Kelleher’s presence at Leinster, as they play in a specialist position there will be plenty of game time for both of them and, besides, their rivalry pushes each other on.
“He hit the nail on the head there in that we are both just trying to drive each other on,” agrees Kelleher. “It’s such a competitive group and we are always relying on each other and sharing information.
“JT (James Tracy) and Nugget (Sean Cronin) are helping with that as well and then myself and Dan are obviously feeding off each other and just pushing each other to work hard. A healthy, competitive relationship there and it’s only driving us on to be better.”
It is one of the reasons why Leinster look better equipped to go two steps further than last season, although Kelleher thinks so for a different reason.
“I feel like we’ve gone to another level, really, in terms of our attacking system. A lot of it is now player led, it is being driven from inside the group.
“Obviously, it was last year but now there are a couple more voices so really it’s about pushing our phase shape and then really making sure we can keep pushing our attack. That’s probably the main difference I can see at the minute.”
After last season’s latest disappointment, they’re that bit hungrier too.