A week on and the English clubs are still whining about some imaginary, unfair advantage that Leinster held over Leicester. The truth is the English clubs have not played at the required standard to reach this year’s Heineken Cup semi-finals. No amount of conspiracy hunting will alter that fact.
Here are two suggestions for English rugby.
Firstly, “You got beat” by a better team. It happens. Suck it up and move on.
Secondly, the English clubs should follow the example of Ronan O’Gara.
In two seasons at La Rochelle, O'Gara has guided his club to their first Heineken Cup final and they have the opportunity to reach a second. All because his leadership has placed a high value on winning the Heineken Cup.
Even the casual observer can see that every action of the Rochelais players demonstrates how desperate they are to win in Europe.
Successful Heineken Cup clubs understand that it takes a very different mindset to win in Europe than it does in their domestic leagues.
While there are many factors involved in growing a winning European mindset, predominantly it is developing the mental toughness and grit to win big games away from home. Last week Toulouse and Leinster proved that winning clutch games on the road is more than vital, it is essential.
La Rochelle will need buckets of that grit to overcome an in-form Racing 92 and a decision that has caused high drama in France. Racing have moved the semi-final to Stade Bollaert-Delelis, in the northern French city of Lens, because their home ground is booked for a concert.
Google maps estimate that the stadium is exactly 666km from La Rochelle. Not a great omen for Ronan and his boys.
Superstitious players who wear lucky underwear will force the bus driver to go around the block twice just to get it to 667 kilometres.
La Rochelle may require all the rabbit’s feet they can rub as Racing have been highly impressive and are the only semi-finalists to have played every game and won.
Racing have also unleashed another super scrumhalf from the seemingly endless French production line. Last week, in a man-of-the-match performance, 19-year-old Nolann Garrec carved Sale apart, kicking goals, making line breaks and setting up tries.
Alongside Finn Russell, Teddy Thomas, Gael Fickou, Juan Imhoff and the 21-year-old lightning fast fullback Max Spring, Racing have successfully harnessed the unpredictability of their creative individuals and have produced some spectacular wins.
While the long road trip for La Rochelle appears to declare “advantage Racing,”, in reality it is an away game for both teams and a delicately balanced match.
No matter who wins in Lens ,the quality of the teams playing in Dublin appears to be superior to that of the all French Sunday roast.
Toulouse will make history by reaching a Heineken Cup semi-final with a record across their last five European games of three losses, a win and a draw.
There is no doubting the exceptional quality of Toulouse, but any competition that awards a team with a place in the semi-finals with a record like that has serious structural problems.
Competition structure aside, Toulouse displayed their unquestionable talent in scoring two stunning set play tries against Munster.
These match-defining tries had their birth in the dedicated work of the Toulouse backroom staff who forensically dissected Munster’s defensive systems, searching for the key that could unlock try-scoring space.
Potential holes were uncovered, and then plays were designed that could exploit that space. Then with brilliance, the Rouge et Noir players executed the plan.
It was a beautiful example of the highest order of the symbiotic relationship between coaches and their players.
That same dedication to analysis will tell the Toulousains that this week they face a very different beast to Munster.
Leinster are in rude good health. Yet despite the smiling faces in the Leinster camp, they are a team driven by a deep burning pain, born in the humiliation of defeat.
The double scars inflicted by Saracens and La Rochelle in Heineken Cup knockout games have not healed.
This exceptionally talented Leinster team carries the burden of knowing they underperformed and let themselves down in both of those big games.
Leinster are very aware that this demon can only be exorcised by lifting the cup for a fifth time. Leinster are not falling into Munster’s trap of leaving victory up to the mythical 16th player. That is a warm, fuzzy fairy-tale created by their marketing department to sell jerseys. Leinster rightly have placed their trust deep within themselves.
Leo Cullen’s plan for this year’s campaign has been long in the making and is highly detailed.
It started by resting his star players prior to the quarter-final. Cullen knew his team would be rusty in the second half at Welford Road. That was the trade-off for the long period of preparation. Today’s performance will be far more cohesive than the warm-up match in Leicester.
The Leinster plan is to target a weakness in the Toulouse armoury, which is at outside centre. In the past the Toulouse coach Ugo Mola has tried converting outhalf Zack Holmes into an outside centre. He imported Kiwi, Tim Nanai-Williams and last week selected journeyman Pierre Fouyssac to fill the troubling role. All with questionable success.
Leinster’s plan will be to run at the French champions, especially around the outside centre zone. That’s something Munster repeatedly failed to do as they mortally kicked away a staggering 72 per cent of possession.
While Leinster will enjoy being at home, they know that in their last two Heineken Cup games the champions have won in Belfast and Dublin. Not even the Munster fans belting out the Cranberries could stop them.
Leinster are very aware that Toulouse are a champion club with deep European traditions, brilliant individual talent and a coaching staff with high rugby intellect. As the former world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney so wonderfully put it, Leinster understand that “champions get up, even when they can’t”.
So Leinster will have to be at their best.
The final in Marseille may well be an all-blue affair, with the Saint Patrick’s blue of Leinster a contrast to the sky blue of Racing 92. Then again, the fighting qualities of Toulouse and La Rochelle mean they are very capable of proving the opposite could be true.
All of which makes for two cracking games of rugby.