'The kid is 22, he leads from the front... He’s a complete freak' 1 year ago

'The kid is 22, he leads from the front... He’s a complete freak'

Go back 12 months and we were all in Bilbao, nice and cosy. Leinster lads ambling by with winners' medals draped around their next or, in Robbie Henshaw's case, stuffed in the kitbag.

Ask them for a word, inside this cost San Mames stadium mixed zone, and most oblige.

Luke McGrath, Jack Conan, Rob Kearney, Jordi Murphy and more. European Cup win number four just secured. Talk already of number five.

Back in the dreary present and we are lined up outside St James' Park and flimsy metal barricades separate us from where the players must pass to get on the team bus.

Emerging from a press conference in which Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell have just vowed to have one hell of a celebratory party and Luke McGrath is surrounded by (mostly Irish) reporters. He is not shying away from his decision to keep the ball in play - kicking to Billy Vunipola - rather than put it out and bring on half-time with Leinster 10-3 ahead.

"Yeah, hindsight's a nice thing," he says. "You'd probably just stop the game there and go in at half-time but we probably thought we'd go up in the air, challenge and maybe get a penalty out of the game and go in 13-3 possibly."

Sarries turned that possibly into a try of their own - catch, penalty won, lineout won, multi-phase attack, skip pass and a Sean Maitland try - and Leinster's 10-0 lead was wiped out heading into the second half.

Luke McGrath performs a box kick under pressure from Maro Itoje of Saracens during the Heineken Champions Cup Final. (Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile)

McGrath heads to the bus and it gets quiet for a while. Sean O'Brien comes and goes, not keen to re-live a loss in his final European outing for Leinster. Scott Fardy turns to a service elevator in the hopes of avoiding the forlorn press gauntlet but, having been pointed in the right direction, turns and walks past.

It gets quiet for a while until an EPCR official cajoles Jack Conan and Tadhg Furlong to stop for a few minutes. Both men speak very well.

Conan looks considerably banged up, probably because he is. In his side's 20-10 defeat, he has moved, tackled, bullocked into and has been flattened by mountains. 23 defensive tackles, 18 carries and a spew of breakdown work.

His neck moves slowly as he looks from right to left, answering questions with patience and consideration and nursing a bottle of beer. There are regrets about Leinster giving up that try before half-time and praise for Saracens' clinical nature.

"They were fantastic today, they're brutal for 80 minutes, they kept on going, kept on pushing us. I suppose we probably just didn't show up at times, didn't play the Leinster rugby that got us to the final, which is disappointing, the lads are feeling it, there's a lot of battered, bruised bodies in there at the moment. It's at the end of the season, we have another two massive weeks hopefully. Munster in the RDS on Saturday, so, rugby can be pretty cruel at times. We'll turn the page as quickly as we can, regroup, stick together, we'll learn from this mistake and hopefully, be better next weekend."

Conan says Leinster pride themselves on 'our varied attack that's unpredictable'. They usually dominate the gain line, he notes, but their is nothing usual or everyday about playing Saracens.

"I don't think we got the right balance of it today," the No.8 adds. "I think we were a bit too predictable at times, they had some big physical units out there and they won a lot of the collisions so it was kind of hard to play, so, yeah, it was just one of those days, unfortunately."

Saracens' Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje celebrate, left, as Leinster players are dejected following the Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and Saracens. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Conan winces as, somewhat crudely, I inform him that he had a "decent" game. His performance was better than that, but it's too late to turn back. Hindsight, etc.

It is put to him that a couple of his pack-mates, Cian Healy and James Ryan, had super performances in a losing battle. "Yeah," he agrees. "Church [Healy] and especially James.

"Like, the kid is 22, he leads from the front through his tackle count, through his carries. He’s a complete freak. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with. He’s extremely humble, a nice bloke, he always wants to be better and wants to keep on working and give everything for the team. I think that shows day in, day out. You know, he’s a top quality, and one of the best in the world, no doubt about it. And yeah, as always he was phenomenal today. He led from the front, he carried, himself and Dev [Toner] ran the lineout really well. He made some big shots, he was everywhere. He’s an absolute freak."

Looking now, for Conan to see the entire board, I tell him Leinster and Saracens will meet again. These are the best two sides in Europe, not by a huge distance but a distance all the same.

Considering the notion, he nods.

"Yeah, I’m sure we will. Please God, this time next year we’ll be back in this scenario in Marseille.

"So we’ll regroup and the start of next year we’ll set our eyes on May 11th or 12th, and get back into another European final and get that fifth star. This isn’t the end of Leinster’s success in European rugby.

"Sometimes the despair drives the desire and we’ll be better from this. I’ve absolutely no doubt about that. Its tough obviously losing the likes of Seanie [O'Brien] in a few weeks, he won’t be here but there are going to be other lads that are going to step up, take the mantle and add to the team and bring their own touch. Leinster is a special place and we’ve got a lot of growing to do, but I think we’ll be better for it."

This time last year, Leinster took a late-night chartered flight back to Dublin and celebrated their fourth 'star' with the Leinster A lads, in a fitting display of squad unity.

Two of the Leinster lads that lost their British & Irish Cup final, that same May 2018 weekend, were on the bench in Newcastle - Max Deegan and Hugh O'Sullivan.

For Leinster to keep pace with this Saracens team, they need a few more of the next generation to stake claims for starting jerseys and making their presence felt in big games. They could also do with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier getting a clear run of it.

'We’ve got a lot of growing to do'.

Unfinished business in the Guinness PRO14 and then the serious slog begins again, because this Sarries team won't be hanging around.