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12th May 2018

Leinster are flying straight back to Dublin to celebrate with the reserve side

Patrick McCarry

Jamison Gibson-Park

9:34pm local time (Bilbao) and only Jack Conan has been through the post-match mixed zone. His medal is firmly hung around his neck and the 330ml can of Heineken he nurses looks doll-like in his hands.

Johnny Sexton, Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa have wrapped their press briefing with a gleaming Champions Cup trophy plonked right in the middle of them.

Those three men won a clatter of Heineken Cups in their day but this is the first time the silver and gold Champions Cup trophy has been in their possession since it was forged in some tax-free Swiss blacksmith’s back in 2014.

That was 30 minutes ago and only Conan, fresh as a daisy and excited as hell, has been through the expansive mixed zone at the San Mames to share some pearls of wisdom. The final was far from a classic, he admits, far, far from it but he is wearing the gold medal before he safely brings it home to mum for safe-keeping.

There are stories to be written, reactions to be reacted and superlatives to be committed to websites, social media and print. But, for now, we wait. There is a throng and a hub-bub nearby and we can only guess at what is unfolding in the Leinster dressing room nearby.

Slowly, the 2018 European champions begin to emerge.

Luke McGrath has haphazardly packed up and it looks as though a fire-cracker has gone off in his kit-bag. Sean Cronin and James Tracy emerge one after the other and Robbie Henshaw is mobbed the the French media.

Jordi Murphy (Ulster-bound), Joey Carbery (possibly following him north) and Isa Nacewa are all shepherded by the media. They won’t be taking questions but, for Leinster, this is not a day for distractions. Those will come thick and fast, especially with Munster coming to The RDS next Saturday.

Rhys Ruddock finishes a chat with the print media and I grab him for a few words. He was one of Leinster’s talismen in the pool stages and made it back from a bad hamstring injury to provide both second- and back-row cover on the bench. He did not get on the pitch but had a great view of a tense ending to his side’s 15-12 victory.

Humble to the core, Ruddock lists off the players and coaches, and support staff, that got Leinster back in the European Cup winners’ circle. It is only as he is heading for the door that he reveals how Leinster plan to celebrate their victory.

“We’re blessed with so much depth in the squad and you can see that in the amount of players we’ve used in the squad, in European games and in the PRO14. Not everyone can get on the field today but everyone very much feels part of it and that is the feeling in the dressing room there.

“Everyone is here and we are going to meet up with the [Leinster A] lads that were in the British & Irish Cup final later on as well. Everyone should feel a part of it as it is a real squad effort.

“They are flying home [from England] and we are flying out to Dublin tonight. We’ll all catch up and will be able to celebrate together as a squad. It should be good.

“Even to catch up with them is important – to meet up with them and share this success because everyone has played a part in it. These opportunities don’t come around too often. We’ll enjoy tonight.”

A severely depleted Leinster A lost the B&I Cup final to Ealing, 22-7, earlier today. They could have easily had the likes of Michael Bent, Rory Molony, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne and more in their squad for that ‘reserve’ final but Leinster opted to bring them to Spain to help prep the senior team.

They could not make it a perfect, winning day for the province but Ruddock and his teammates know how big a part they played in their Champions Cup success.

57 players used in the PRO14 and 37 in Europe. 23 men wore the medals in Bilbao but this was definitely a squad effort.

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