AND SO FIVE months on from their crowning moment in the Bilbao rain, Leinster’s bid to go back-to-back and further strengthen their position as the European kingpins gets underway at the RDS this evening.
The message, however, couldn’t be clearer coming from the four walls of the province’s UCD headquarters; last year counts for nothing now, and Leo Cullen’s charges know it does not take much for a team of champions to become last year’s men.
Leinster begin their title defence against Wasps tonight. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
A faultless and dream campaign last year saw Leinster become just the second side behind Saracens to record a clean sweep of victories through the pool stages and business end of the competition, as they joined Toulouse with four European stars to their name.
That’s all history now, the double-winning season parked and the page very much turned as Leinster hit the reset button and prepare to embark on another European odyssey, starting with the visit of Wasps under Friday night lights [KO 7.45pm, BT Sport].
The sight of the English side immediately evokes painful memories of three years ago, and serves as a reminder as to just how quickly fortunes can change in this competition, with the eastern province suffering home and away defeats to Wasps in that forgettable 2015/16 campaign.
Wasps’ stunning raid of the RDS three Novembers ago has not been mentioned in the team meetings this week, Cullen insists, but those haunting memories will always lurk in the back of Leinster minds.
At that juncture, the province couldn’t have been further from reaching the pinnacle of European rugby again as their golden age of three Heineken Cups in four seasons quickly turned into an unfulfilled and barren age, but how that has changed.
Leinster are now the team to beat again — the continental protagonists — and go into the 2018/19 campaign with a target on their backs, starting tonight as Dai Young’s side arrive in Dublin with the prize scalp in their sights.
That in itself changes the dynamic, and mindset, but there are no thoughts of adding a fifth star to the Leinster crest just yet, rather a steely determination to narrow the focus and ensure their year of success isn’t followed by a year of disappointment.
“As a playing group you try and change your mindset a little bit,” Rob Kearney says.
“As of tonight, we’re just one of another team trying to get the trophy and you saw at the European media launch, Johnny [Sexton] carried the trophy in and he put it back down on the stand and, for me, that was a bit of a telling moment that he was giving it back and it was all to play for again.
“So certainly within the playing group that is the type of attitude we are trying to incorporate into this season, that we’re just one of the teams going chasing it again.”
Cullen was speaking off the same page at yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
“You start all over again from scratch,” the head coach started. “It is slightly different. The dynamic of the group is different. At the end of every year you lose a few players and a couple of guys come in or push through. Everyone is a year older. Some are wiser, others maybe not so. So the dynamic starts all over again.
Jordan Larmour returns to Leinster’s starting XV tonight. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
“We try to build our way into the season. We always have the challenge of trying to manage guys in at different stages. We’ve come through that and we have a nice competitive bunch of players here who want to push on and do well.
“They know what is at stake off the back of these games with selections in November and all the different bits that go on after that. The group are in good form but guys know that they have to play because if they don’t play well then chances are that someone else will come in and take their spot.”
In again rotating his resources by making nine changes from last week’s inter-pro win over Munster, Cullen was faced with a number of tough selection decisions but his star-studded side further highlights the unrivalled strength in depth at the province.
With a near-fully fit squad to choose from, Cullen was always going to have to make some difficult calls, and in doing so has had to leave Rhys Ruddock out of the matchday squad entirely, while Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy must settle for a place on the bench.
It is that reservoir of talent which helped Leinster stand apart last term, and having been part of four European Cup-winning squads with the province, Kearney admits this is the greatest depth he has experienced.
Overall, with five wins from six Pro14 outings and just Jamison Gibson-Park and Will Connors on the treatment table, the defending champions are in particularly rude health.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” the Ireland international agrees. “I think Monday morning team selection is quiet, the players ourselves don’t know what the strongest team is and I’m sure the coaches even question as well at times what are strongest team is.
“But you look at the names missing out, it’s without a doubt one of the strongest squads we’ve had over the last few years, if not the strongest.”
Should Leinster open their account with victory tonight, they will equal their longest winning streak of 10 games in the competition which they set across the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, while the province have lost just three European games at the RDS.
All three, however, were in round one of the pool stages and against English opposition, with Bath’s victory in Dublin back in 2005 coming on the night Kearney made his European debut.
“I remember Bath and London Irish,” he says, as Cullen grimaces thinking back to that record 33-6 defeat to Wasps in November 2015.
“I remember the Wasps one very well,” the former second row exhales.
Indeed, this will be the third time the two sides meet in the opening round of the European season, with both of those previous meetings taking place at the RDS while the overall record is evenly split, with both teams winning three apiece and drawing once.
Leinster, meanwhile, have won their last six games against Premiership opposition having previously won just four of their preceding 10 such games, but Kearney warns English teams can’t be overlooked again this year.
“You write off English teams at your peril a little bit, that’s probably sometimes when they’re at their strongest,” he stressed.
“They were still relatively competitive last year in the tournament, and I think a lot of people expect the English to be more competitive this year.”
Leinster will want to avoid a repeat of their 2015 meeting with Wasps later. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Leinster will be bidding to tame the threat a dangerous Wasps outfit will pose later, with the visitors welcoming Springbok Willie le Roux back into their side, as well as 18-time capped All Black out-half Lima Sopoaga.
“I saw a lot of him when I was with the Highlanders,” Cullen says of the Wasps 10. “It’s probably the array of kicks that he has. He’s a very very astute kicker I think, so he’s a quality player and he’s settling in there. He’s only played a handful of games. He’s a handful. I think some of the tactical kicking is what we need for to be aware of, particularly in the conditions.
“Hopefully the game is being dictated on our terms.”
Cullen has certainly been able to field his strongest hand with no fewer than 14 internationals in his side, and the bench also has the potential to add explosive firepower as the game progresses, with O’Brien and Fardy among those held back with a view to making a big second-half impact.
With a sell-out crowd of 18,300 expected in the RDS for the return of European rugby, Leinster will be keen to send out an early statement of their intent in their quest to reign supreme in Europe again.
“It’s exciting,” Kearney adds. “There’s something really exciting about Friday nights in the RDS for European rugby, so it’s great to get back into it.
“You’re building up in rounds one to five of the league, knowing that round one of Europe is coming and you’re trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible, and this is the one that we’ve been waiting for over the last couple of weeks.”
There is a long way to go, but the road to Newcastle starts tonight, and Leinster will want to blaze a trail on the continent again. They’ll take some stopping.
15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Jonathan Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath
1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Dan Leavy
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
16. James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Scott Fardy
20. Sean O’Brien
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Ross Byrne
23. Joe Tomane
15. Willie Le Roux
14. Josh Bassett
13. Juan de Jongh
12. Michael Le Bourgeois
11. Elliot Daly (captain)
10. Lima Sopoaga
9. Joe Simpson
1. Zurabi Zhvania
2. Tommy Taylor
3. Kieran Brookes
4. Will Rowlands
5. James Gaskell
6. Brad Shields
7. Thomas Young
8. Nizaam Carr
16. Tom Cruse
17. Ben Harris
18. Will Stuart
19. Kearnan Myall
20. Ashley Johnson
21. Craig Hampson
22. Billy Searle
23. Rob Miller.
Referee: Romain Poite.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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