Sore heads and ice-cream reign supreme for Leinster homecoming
European Champions Cup winners mingle with devoted fans at Donnybrook Stadium
As a game of rugby it was much more enjoyable on the second viewing. For one thing there was no rain in Donnybrook on Sunday, unlike the conditions in Bilbao on Saturday.
As has been pointed out many times, Leinster’s win over Racing 92 in the Basque city to claim the European Rugby Champions Cup was not a pleasant spectacle. It was the right result but the road to victory was a turgid slog, heavy on penalties and devoid of tries.
But for the hundreds who came to Donnybrook Stadium on Sunday to welcome home the champions, the performance was secondary. Maybe even tertiary behind seeing the silverware and welcoming home their heros.
As fans waited for the players to arrive they watched a replay of the previous day’s match. There was none of the nail-biting tension or groans of disappointment that went with the live version on Saturday.
This time the faithful could enjoy the match, even the mistakes, comfortable in the knowledge that Leinster captain Isa Nacewa would put them into the lead with just minutes to go and secure the province’s fourth champions cup title.
Actually most people didn’t bother with the match too much. They were concentrating on eating ice-creams while their kids played mini games of rugby on the empty spots of the well-groomed pitch.
“It’s a really nice thing for the kids,” said Shay Kinsella as his six-year-old son Dylan harassed Leinster mascot Leo the Lion. “We wouldn’t be able to go over there for the match so this is the next best thing. Even getting to throw a ball around the pitch while waiting on the team, it’s really nice for the kids.”
All ball games and mascot tormenting stopped immediately when the Leinster team’s arrival was announced. The match replay on the big screens was cut short. There was no need for it anymore. The real thing was here.
Chants of “Leinster! Leinster!” rippled through the crowd as the team made their way to the stage, led by Nacewa and the trophy. Once on stage there was some jostling when the players were asked who would lift the cup.
Eventually Dan Leavy, whose relentless physicality on Saturday was key to Leinster’s victory, was pushed forward to do the honours. He raised the massive cup as fireworks shot into the air behind him. If you looked closely you could see a few of the players, fresh from last night’s celebrations, wince at the sudden cacophony.
It was a day for the fans, especially those who travelled in their thousands to Bilbao. It was estimated Irish fans outnumbered Racing’s support by four to one in the stadium.
Posing for pictures
Although there was many a sore ahead among the players from Saturday night (you could tell who really enjoyed themselves by who was wearing sunglasses), they cheerfully signed autographs and posed for pictures with the kids.
It was also a day to recognise the contribution of Nacewa to the Leinster story. The New Zealander is retiring this year after 10 years with the side.
Not only did he lead an unbeaten team to victory this year, he did so by personally kicking the winning penalty in the dying minutes. The biggest cheer of the day was reserved for him (the second biggest was for Tadhg Furlong when he demonstrated his dainty victory dance).
Nacewa and team are not quite done yet however. Leinster still aim to win the Guinness Pro14 this year and to that end will take on Munster this Saturday in the semi-final.
“Enjoy your few hours lads,” coach Leo Cullen told the team, but “not too much”.