Leinster’s battalion complete campaign with all the spoils
A few magical moments against Scarlets capped a long season of effort and success
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton celebrates with fans after the Pro14 final win over Scarlets. “In the Racing games we didn’t score any tries. We had chances. We didn’t take them. Today we managed to take them.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
A golden generation passes and the one that replaces it seems gifted with even more than what went before.
Already a word that groups players into a collective meaning for excellence is being sought.
When Johnny Sexton, Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen busied themselves informing people after they had wandered in exhausted and beaten after ripping into Scarlets, that 55 players was the number, Rugby began to look NFL. Battalion seemed appropriate.
But a season for Leinster that fittingly began last September in Rodney Parade with Dragons and former hooker Bernard Jackman was about more than numbers, although Scarlets’ coach Wayne Pivac did utter “don’t have the budget” when Leinster’s extravagant figure was mentioned.
Sexton, who Lancaster said was the “best player I’ve worked with” was the brilliant alchemist at the heart of making things change.
But as the matches gathered in importance and week by week towards the end became must win, emotion threatened to wash over and drain away any hopes of a Grand Slam and double. Last count, 16 from Leinster were involved with Joe Schmidt.
“We were looking back, some of us, during the week and wondering how many games we played and probably only played 19 or 20 games,” said Sexton. “The first game we played was Edinburgh [fifth match] and every other was either been a European, an interpro or an international. They don’t get much more intense.”
As it unfolded a balance came into play. How to tell over 30 players they are not in the final including Australia-bound Ross Byrne, how to motivate the ones that are playing and how to keep the nervous energy from surging away from performance levels.
“I thought we got the balance right between trying to get up emotionally for last week and this week,” added Sexton. “I suppose this week it was about trying to calm the emotions. There was obviously going to be no lack of motivation with trying to send a couple of the lads off with another trophy and obviously with a bit of history at stake as well.
“Last week was all about trying to get up for it, trying to go back to back emotionally and match Munster. We knew that was going to be difficult. It was all about trying to find the balance and calm down at times, trying to get our game plan right and our execution right.”
Sexton spoke of the place Leinster now find themselves and his position in it. His license to do what he sees in front of him has gifted the team with a risk taking element.
Working the scoreboard is imperative but not always. On Saturday Leinster kicked for touch, ignored the easy three points. With that attitude and confidence they leave the bundle of notes for the gold bullion.
“Yeah again we probably have to look at the start of the second half. We probably could have taken three [points],” he said. “We said same again. If we could back up another try. It looked like we were going to go over. But the ball was ripped out just on the line.
“Tries win you finals. We spoke about that. In the Racing games we didn’t score any tries. We had chances. We didn’t take them. Today we managed to take them.”
The Irish outhalf also spoke of luck and margins as a chef would talk of a pinch of herbs, enough to make or break the dish. Leinster won little of those last season and left with nothing. He name-checked Saracens and England in the Six Nations and how their moments turned towards Irish players.
He says he has become outcome driven, that plays are calculated. In the referees face arguing for yards, taking a lineout instead of a penalty, firing a 40 yard cross field ball to a screaming Jordan Larmour are measured acts, adapting.
“You can be so belligerent that even if you don’t get the bounce of the ball . . . at times against Racing, it would have been very easy for us to say ‘Aw, it’s not our day,’” he says. “We managed to find a way and today it was the same.
“European Cup final, we had a set move off a quick tap. You tell the ref they are not back 10 metres. They are only five metres away. But he penalises you.
“It’s all outcome judged. In my position I’m well used to it. The decision is only as good as the outcome.”
Then you wonder if Larmour’s chase, kick and breathless one handed scoop towards the end for his try was a decision. Or Carbery’s both ways step for Jack Conan’s swallow dive fully considered. Or Sexton’s pass to Lowe at contact, was that advance planning. Or were they all something else that Leinster possess but can’t quantify.
“You do have to enjoy it,” he says as a counterpoint.
But a long season of effort and success distilled into a few magical actions seem as much part of what Leinster have become as the number 55.