Gordon D'Arcy: Everything is aligned for Leinster before Bilbao

Defeat to Connacht will be a mere footnote if Cullen’s men deliver on the grand stage

My first experience of playing for Leinster against Connacht at the Sportsground was in October 1998. I was 18. I remember thinking before the game that this was Connacht and surely we just have to play our game and we win. A naïve boy’s outlook on rugby.

A turnover five metres from our line resulted in a memorable length of the field try, but that was the only positive I could take. We lost the match to a simple Eric Elwood wraparound under the posts. They won 24-23. Sitting in the dressing-room afterwards I thought: "What has just happened? How did we lose that?"

Because we didn’t pay them enough respect.

In some rugby games, while it’s not carved in stone, players who are perceived as “less skilful” can outperform more talented individuals by just wanting it more and digging deeper. You can be off a fraction mentally, you lose a couple of battles early on and the game just runs away from you. Players start looking for somebody to turn the tide, and the moment you look to somebody else the game is lost.

Last Saturday, not for the first time in the history of this rivalry, Connacht were playing for something more than Leinster. In the professional era, Leinster losing to Connacht (especially in the west) in that fashion is not that surprising. I played there nine times for Leinster. We won five and lost four. In my second season, we won 53-8 at the Sportsground and I scored two of our tries. Usually though, either Leinster would win in a grinding fashion or lose to a passionate Connacht team.

But compared to the entity that the IRFU tried to disband, Connacht were vastly different at the weekend. Connacht have had to develop a mindset beyond playing with a chip on their shoulder. That only lasts for so long. Now they have developed a winning culture, and you wouldn’t say that man for man Leinster were better. In some positions, Connacht were quite clearly superior. There was a powerful undercurrent added to the mix; they were playing for Mull [John Muldoon] with everything they had and Leinster could hardly draw breath.

Then Kieran Keane departs, which shows coaching can be a poisoned chalice when succeeding an era-defining coach. Even for a top-quality coach, a big part of the changeover is trying to get people to believe in your way of thinking, which is only going to be slightly different.

Rugby has yet to reinvented. There is a value in finding a common language to help players with that transition. The most successful coaches understand the emotional intelligence that players need, and the sensitivities/loyalties they may have to a previous coach; so trying to resist the temptation to make wholesale changes or to stamp their own style on things. That’s a big challenge for a new coach coming in to a winning environment.

Delicate balance

Many of the things Joe Schmidt did initially when he joined Leinster were around the culture, such as the introduction of handshakes every morning. That was almost him saying: “I’m going to eventually change everything, but I want you guys to concentrate on breaking down some barriers internally. Have a bit of fun with that. Get to know me, and trust me, and now we’re going to try and change some systems”.

We were changing stuff in the first two/three weeks into the season, and it wasn’t working, but we believed in the process and more importantly the person behind those processes.

If the manner in which the new coach deals with players is just slightly out, and one or two players may subconsciously hold back, then you’ve lost it before you’ve even started.

From a Leinster perspective, Saturday was a reminder about the delicate balance in a team around experience and youth, and how this can affect a game’s momentum. Who has more to play for? Do they feel this is their chance or do they feel they are filling in for somebody? Did they approach the game like I did some 20 years ago? Some players played well and tried to swim against the Connacht tide but the collective performance wasn’t there; normally a Leinster trademark.

There is a silver lining. Some of these players will play in the Champions Cup in the short term and this is helping to build a resilience that is needed to play professional sport. They’ve played when structurally weakened and they didn’t perform. It’s a huge learning curve for these guys to understand that you don’t get carried any more. Everybody has to perform together.

That is an invaluable lesson (maybe sooner rather than later for some, with either Munster or Edinburgh lurking for Leinster in the long grass a week after the European final).

It also highlights the challenges in blooding new players and the resource management required in using 55 players over a season. Overall, Leinster have managed it almost flawlessly. They still have a home semi-final in the Pro14, so the defeats to Benetton and Connacht have had no material effect on the outcome of their season. They’ve worked hard for them not to have to man up this weekend.

As injuries and selection for the final come into view, the old Gary Player maxim applies: "The harder you work, the luckier you get."

Racing had a huge weekend at the office with a rout of Bordeaux but at a cost that will certainly hurt them. Losing Maxime Machenaud is a huge blow to them with Teddy Iribaren most likely to deputise. Depending on who will be the placekicker, it could mean Dan Carter starts the final at 10 because they will need a kicker.

Racing have blown teams away in periods of beautiful rugby but then revealed a weak underbelly that Munster almost exposed. There is a potential fragility to them that I’ll look at next week.

Leinster can’t let them show up, and it all comes down to the preparation. They have been able to rest their really influential people for two weekends. I know from first hand experience that the older you get it’s about the quality of your work, not the quantity. When you’re 28 you can play 30 games a season and close to a consistent quality. For players who are 30-plus, being able to recover from these physical games is worth its weight in gold.

Under pressure

Racing are one point clear of Toulouse in second place, and a top-two finish would earn them a free weekend, but that comes after Bilbao. So Racing are under pressure to front up again this Saturday at home to Agen. They run the risk of running on empty, whereas Leinster can take a rest, reflect and come back to match mode next week.

With that comes an incredible amount of pressure. I’m sure Leinster want and expect to win it themselves, but from the outside Leinster are expected to win this final. Leinster have done everything right until this point, but unfortunately sport can be very cruel, and they’ll be judged very harshly if they don’t get these two weeks right.

Their task is to circumnavigate that pressure to perform as they have done all season in Europe. They had a similar rest before the semi-final and hit the right notes against a team they desperately wanted to beat. They’ve got to replicate that, and have plenty of muscle memory and driven people, but the caveat is seeing what Connacht did when they were playing for something more than just the match.

Heading to Bilbao, everything is aligned for Leinster but this is a long week, trying to manage arousal and potential, while mentally not peaking too early. This week is a luxury and should be treated as such; time together as a squad akin to what Munster did by bringing everyone to South Africa.

This week’s preparation will be underpinned by the guys not in the frame. Can they feel valued and present to prepare whoever is picked to represent the group to win against an unpredictable French team? This is the week when they set the foundation as a squad ‘to lose together and win together’. There’s an opportunity to have some fun, mentally relax as it doesn’t have to be purely rugby-focussed, once it builds up to a crescendo next week.

Under the great players I played with, they valued the squad and understood the dynamic (sometimes because they were a squad player). Leo letting Shane Horgan and I lift the cup was one of those moments for me.

One of the key strengths of a coach is being able to see the long game while being down in the weeds on a day-to-day basis. Leo and Stuart Lancaster have earned the right not to be playing this week and all the leaders (young and older) had time to refresh in a similar fashion to the semi-final.

History doesn’t repeat itself but it certainly does rhyme. The loss to Benetton and now Connacht (with the benefit of hindsight) will hopefully be a key driver in their preparations. The challenge for Leinster is to manage the two weeks, the expectations, last week’s result and all with a view to building up to next week’s match.

Multiple timelines, resource management and trying to achieve consistency in performance are the ultimate challenges, but there is always going to be some collateral damage, the cost of which is only ever known at the end of the season.

Was the home loss to Benetton and 40-points drilling by Connacht worth it? My gut tells me it will be. But the age-old motto is: control the controllables and stay focused on that. At the business end of the season, it can become so hard to stay your course, and not try something different. Leinster don’t need to do that and they’ll know it.