AFTER LEINSTER PUT seven tries on Bath at Lansdowne Road, one radio reporter mentioned that he’d overheard a fan in Kiely’s say ‘They might as well give us the Cup now.’
The bookies have anointed Leinster as probable HEC winners and, in end-of-year predictions bloggers and commentators queued up to forecast another Leinster Heineken Cup win, with several throwing in a Rabo Pro12 title for good measure.
Things are certainly looking rosy in the Leinster garden.
In spite of injuries to BOD and Shaggy, they look set to secure a home quarter-final in the Heiny, and are nine points clear in the Pro12. Jamie Heaslip is looking like his old self and Johnny Sexton is looking Europe’s premier fly-half once more.
Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley have pitched in at centre to good effect and the return to fitness of Rob Kearney and to form of Luke Fitzgerald have partially offset the backline injuries.
They can afford to mix up their team according to their opponent, playing a vdMerwe-Browne-McLoughlin-Boss axis for physical away days, and unleashing Church-Toner-Jennings-Reddan at home when they look to play at lightning speed. Their success is generally built on a high-tempo attack and in particular phenomenal aggression at the breakdown, where the likes of Heaslip, Healy and Jennings hurl their bodies into the wreckage to continually generate quick ball. Even when they butcher all their try opportunities (Bath away) or just play rubbish (Connacht away), they still seem to find a way of winning.
It’s all enough to make this Leinster fan decidedly nervous. There are umpteen reasons to be cautious. Firstly, it needs to be borne in mind that the Heineken Cup is a strange competition in many ways, not least its bitty, broken structure.
Once the home quarter-final is secured, the team breaks up for a whole Six Nations. Who knows how the players will return? Will Sexton be in the same frame of mind? Will Ireland’s cumbersome attacking patterns need to be coached out of the players’ systems?
Who’ll be injured? It’s like qualifying for an entirely different competition.
For another, there’s the all-important (too important to be truthful) semi-final draw. Leinster, good as they are, would still travel to Clermont or Toulouse as second favourites, and a trip to Saracens would be something of a coin toss. As champions, they are there to be shot at, and the historical difficulty of retaining the Cup is so well established we need not dwell on it.
It’s also important to note that the Heineken Cup isn’t necessarily, or even all that often, won by the best team, but that which can continually stay alive.
Once you enter the spring, it’s a knockout competition, in which you’re always one game from going out. Leinster were superb from start to finish last year, and deservedly took the spoils, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
It may be more instructive to look at their 2009 victory, when they were dismal for at least half the group stage, and decidedly fortunate to emerge victorious from a freakish quarter-final against Harlequins. Leinster would also do well to remind themselves of what fate befell Munster that season. For it was they, at the time, who appeared unbeatable. After the twin peaks of the 22-5 win over Leinster and the 39-6 thrashing of the Ospreys, back-to-back Heineken Cups seemed inevitable.
Such performances can paper over the cracks a little. Munster looked flawless at the time, but Michael Cheika recognised that neither of their centres were distributors and ruthlessly exposed them. Similarly, Leinster have a glaring weakness in the second row, which has yet to be properly tested.
Nathan Hines’ importance to last year’s team is well documented – on top of that, Leo Cullen appears to be in decline. Devin Toner has improved immeasurably, but will it be enough against a Toulouse or a Clermont (hello again Nathan!)? And don’t forget he is still playing second fiddle to Damian Browne (it feels like we should emphasise his name somehow, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair) on away-days.
Joe Schmidt is an outstanding coach, but this year he has another aspect of the game to manage: expectations.
He must do his utmost to ensure that the warm, fuzzy feeling emanating from the stands doesn’t impact too much on the players’ mindset. If he can do that, and Leinster do land back-to-back Heineken Cups, their third in four years, with the Pro12 to boot, then we can declare them even better than the great Munster, Wasps, Leicester and Toulouse sides of the professional era.
But not before.