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25th May 2024

Big questions as big pressure gets the better of this Leinster group, again

Ronan Calvert

Leinster Pressure

Knock-out rugby and this Leinster group are not friends.

“There’s probably been more handling errors in the first fifteen minutes than there’s been in the whole season”.

Some version of Bernard Jackman‘s observation from today’s defeat to Toulouse has probably been shared during every one of Leinster and Ireland’s knockout matches over the last while.

The last time Leinster lifted a trophy in front of a crowd was a whole five years ago in the 2019 Pro14 Final against Glasgow Warriors.

That’s right, since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the province has only been able to celebrate the behind-closed-doors Pro14 triumphs of 2020 and 2021.

You could call this nitpicking statistics – if only the thesis question didn’t concern Leinster’s inability to deliver when the pressure is really on. Big crowds. Big stakes. Big occasions.

This Leinster group’s performances in the round-robin medium of the URC league stage and the Six Nations (where as many as 12 Leinster players start for Ireland) shows the true quality of the players.

These same players helped Ireland win the Triple Crown in 2022, the Grand Slam in 2023 and the Six Nations Championship in 2024.

There’s no questioning their ability. That much was even obvious throughout the Toulouse match – there is star quality everywhere.

Yet, Toulouse, who played the game with a depleted midfield, were the ones who kept their composure.

While Leinster repeatedly fumbled in the Toulouse 22 and repeatedly kicked for the corner instead of the posts, Toulouse were happy to seize their moments like a true championship team who have seen it all before.

The French outfit were put under immense pressure, and there’s no doubt about it, Leinster’s quality will always push opponents to their limits.

But the more these players fall short, the more you think there must be a fundamental issue at play which explains these continuous shortcomings on similar occasions.

Leinster leadership vacuum.

Leinster previously had the problem of over-relying on Jonathan Sexton for their leadership.

Deep in these colossal matches, you need to dip into a character reserve and Sexton was always the main man spurring on his teammates.

The over-reliance on an ageing Sexton meant that Leinster didn’t always get the job done, and when Sexton was missing – like he was in the 2023 Champions Cup Final against La Rochelle – Leinster could look like a world-class team built on wafer.

With lesser captain material like Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney long retired, there appears to be a leadership vacuum in the Leinster ranks and the point is best highlighted by the fact they had to choose co-captains Garry Ringrose and James Ryan for this season.

Some might counter-argue that neither player started the Champions Cup final loss to Toulouse, but (1) Ryan came on at half-time to take over from stand-in skipper Caelan Doris and (2) this issue dates back a lot further than this weekend.

It dates back so far that, for all of Leinster’s deserved praise over the last decade, there is just one Champions Cup trophy to show for it.

It would be disingenuous of any Leinster official to pretend they are satisfied with that statistic, especially given the socio-economic advantages of the province, the internal resources of their operation and the support they receive from the IRFU.

IRFU change.

The national body currently pays for ten of Leinster’s Ireland internationals’ contracts in a system which rewards the province with the best resources, inadvertently freeing up funds for top-class foreign imports. By comparison, next season Connacht, Munster and Ulster will all have just one central contract.

At the moment that’s still not enough and so treating Leinster’s knock-out rugby woes is the addition of RG Snyman, Jordie Barrett and potentially Handre Pollard for their next campaign.

These players will surely help Leinster secure a trophy in the same way Australia veteran Scott Fardy guided a pretty similar Leinster group to victory in the 2018 final, but the problem which arose against Toulouse and so many times against La Rochelle will rear its ugly head again before long.

Especially as, starting next season, the provinces must pay for 30% of every centrally-contract player’s wages. For example’s sake, 30% of €500,000 a year equates to €150,000.

That would mean Leinster – who have ten IRFU contracted players – will be €1,500,000 worse off for the 2024/2025 season. And that’s a modest estimate.

The shake-up could mean that Leinster’s best chance at creating a dynasty a la the Crusaders under Robertson and O’Gara has likely already passed, with more equity being introduced to the Irish game.

That is unless Leinster somehow get to the bottom of this character issue. It’s a sentence which feels hard to type but the growing evidence suggests it’s true.

Whether it’s leadership programmes, sports psychology or a tough pre-season, something needs to be done.

These repeated shortcomings have prevented both the province and Ireland from achieving what they should have over the last ten years so maybe it’s time to worry less about the rugby and more about the mind.

It might not be possible to spawn a Sandymount Siya Kolisi but it should be better than this.

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