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Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster now shooting for a fifth star

Having come tantalisingly close in recent years, this Leinster group has what it takes

Joe Schmidt frequently referred to 'controlling the controllable,' as if to offer a reminder that focusing or dwelling on external issues or perception was a waste of energy. He prioritised working diligently and intelligently in preparing for a game and then in the maelstrom of a match concentrating on the task in hand.

How other people perceive Leinster is largely irrelevant, as was the background chatter about last weekend's Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse. The central issue for Leo Cullen and his players was to ensure that they got the details of their performance right at the Aviva stadium. It did not matter if Toulouse were tired or not tired per se and in victory it matters even less.

It does not devalue the win because Leinster were the fresher team. There will not be an asterisk beside the result with an explanation of the circumstances. Both teams were dealt cards and they played them to the best of their ability.

If you compare the respective journeys to this point in the season, Leinster were able to lay satisfactory groundwork in the United Rugby Championship, striking a balance that allowed them to secure a number one seeding for the knockout stage while also managing their European commitments.

Toulouse sit in sixth place in the French Top 14 and are now facing a tough tussle to try and retain that title. This season has taken more of a toll on the French giants, and it is the brutal nature of sport that sometimes even great teams need to expend more than they would ordinarily like to earlier in the season.

It’s a catch 22 situation, if you don’t win enough games in the early part of the season, you won’t be in the right position and will instead have to fight hard to make the playoffs. Pushing to win those games down the stretch can come at a cost. Frontline players are saddled with a greater workload.

Quite simply, Toulouse have not been as good this year as the standards they produced for their double winning campaign last season. There is also no Cheslin Kolbe; the Springbok was a pivotal player in that success.

Weary

Their victory over Munster definitely left a physical legacy and that was evident in a leggy, weary display at times that was evident even in the first 20 minutes, one illustration when Rory Arnold missed his defensive cue that allowed Johnny Sexton to ghost through a gap and set up Josh van der Flier for a try.

Leinster's win isn't an end product, it's a steppingstone to a potentially greater achievement. If they don't beat La Rochelle in Marseilles on Saturday week, then everything they have done to date in the tournament will feel hollow. It is an all too familiar regret since their last European success in 2018.

Leinster have come up short in trying to add to their four European triumphs in those intervening years. It has required a regeneration process. They came tantalisingly close in 2019 when losing a belter of a final against Saracens but since then have been sent packing in a quarter-final and last season against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, who they will oppose once again this time with the trophy visible on the sideline.

The disappointment of losing those two play-off matches ensured that Leinster's general player recruitment policy came under scrutiny. The fact that they didn't replace Scott Fardy or beef up their secondrow resources continued to fuel the narrative that the Irish province was a little underpowered and susceptible to outsized packs.

Contrast that with the case of James Lowe. Isa Nacewa left big boots to fill but his fellow New Zealander is making impressive strides. While it may have taken Lowe a little bit of time to settle and consistently deliver on his talent, he has worked hard to refine his game, remove the glitches; he has filled that blue jersey superbly and is largely having the same impact as his fellow Kiwi in terms of being a big game player.

When you step back from the trees and look at the forest, you can see the growth within this squad. The coaching staff, unsurprisingly, saw a very different picture to what we did. The regeneration process seems to have reached a stage where Leinster once again have the personnel to win a fifth star.

That is hardly a bold statement given that they are in a final but assuming Lowe and Tadhg Furlong recover from injury - this group looks properly equipped to win that fifth star. Should Furlong, the more serious injury of the two not return, Leinster will need Michael Ala'alatoa to step up to the plate and there was enough in Saturday's match to suggest he can.

Dynamic

The quality of the individual moments within the overriding excellence of the team dynamic is something that we have not seen in Europe for a couple of seasons. Ross Molony offers a classic case in point. Having put recent injuries behind him he has blossomed into a player he threatened to become earlier in his career and has been the perfect foil for James Ryan.

One clear-out the last day should be used in every coaching manual, his body height, entry, scanning and physicality on point. His phase play distribution set him apart from nearly everyone else on the pitch.

Leinster’s younger set of players have helped to fill in previous performance gaps and that is why Cullen’s charges are in a final on Saturday week. They have more rounded experience to complement talent.

A younger Leinster side will take on Munster at the Aviva stadium in the final round of the league stage of the URC. The visitors need to win to render redundant the mathematics of securing a home quarterfinal. Leinster have the luxury of rotating players that will have been preparing for Munster for over a week.

There will not be the same emotional vacuum this weekend as the contest with Toulouse was over after the first quarter. Leinster did not have to be at their best to win, they just had to do enough. Josh van der Flier’s try was a good example of how Leinster pull teams apart at the moment. It is not rocket science, down to good old fashioned hard work, strong decisions and embracing the incredibly high ‘ball in play’ time.

There were three or four rucks in the lead up to Sexton’s break where Leinster outworked their opposition; Ryan, Molony and Doris had key roles and they were set early, knowing that Jamison Gibson-Park would maintain the tempo. Molony’s pullback pass to Sexton was perfectly timed while the outhalf gave the defence ‘the eyes’ and vanished through a hole.

Overall Leinster were better prepared, they corralled Antoine Dupont better than most teams have been able to do for a while. Tadgh Furlong's superb, floated pass was widely celebrated in the broader rugby community but Andrew Porter's ability to disrupt the Toulouse scrumhalf was equally important.

Former Leinster coach Matty Williams was sweet on messing with the heads of the opposing halfbacks, or more specifically getting into their faces and passing channels at every opportunity. The pillar (person closest to the ruck) would shoot up at the nine to do nothing other than get him on the deck or wreck his pass. Why? Just to try and get in his head.

Execution

Porter helped to dislodge the ball from a frustrated Dupont. I know Toulouse ultimately ended up scoring from this passage of play. The key decision was Gibson-Park’s decision to kick. If he feels it was the right choice then he must have the courage to do it again, with a better execution, if the occasion arises in the final. I believe he does have that resolve and it is undeniable how important he is to what Leinster are doing.

Leinster have moved away from needing everything to go through Sexton and as a result are very difficult to read and defend. If I were to educate my younger self on how to play rugby it would currently be based on a combination of Gibson-Park, Lowe and Sexton. The mind decides and the body follows. I cannot stress this enough.

What sets these guys apart from everyone else is decision-making in possession. It is hard to explain sometimes but it boils down to the best players doing the easy thing well under intense pressure. Leinster’s attack is not limited to these individuals; the whole squad has embraced this possession and tempo philosophy.

For this to be a genuine regeneration of Leinster, the 50+ squad will need to perform again this weekend. As this week will matter, not in the immediate context of the URC as the top spot is guaranteed, but it will form part of the build-up to next week’s Champions Cup final and into the knockout stages of the URC.

Selection will be tight in the coming weeks. Last Saturday’s performance boasted a very high watermark, and the coaching staff will demand that there is no decline in effort and application for those that wear the blue at the Aviva stadium this weekend when they consider selection going forward.

Leinster will rotate the matchday squad while in contrast Munster’s selection will be as strong as possible, injuries notwithstanding, to secure a victory that would give them an easier route to a potential URC final. For Johann van Graan’s squad the result is everything.