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Leinster under pressure to make up for Irish World Cup disappointment

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The Champions Cup semifinal weekend has arrived and with that the start of a period of immense pressure for Leinster.

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The Irish giants can achieve the double of being kings of Europe and the United Rugby Championship, however they have to win five play-off games between now and June 22.

While most South African interest this weekend will be on the EPCR Challenge Cup semifinal featuring the Sharks against Clermont-Auvergne at the Stoop in London, the focus globally will be on whether the two favoured teams, Leinster and Toulouse, can see off the challenges of the two English upstarts, Northampton Saints and Harlequins respectively.

Both the favourites face pressure, as Toulouse have won the most Champions Cups but haven’t  been part of the Final for a few years, while Leinster have been probably the most consistent performers across both the Champions Cup and the URC over the past two seasons but have nothing in their trophy cabinet to show for their good performance.

Would you want to be involved with Leinster or wouldn’t you? The answer to that question depends on how you define success. Is it about performance and getting deep into a competition, or is success defined by the number of trophies you win?

There are doubtless many in rugby who’d bite off their own hand to be involved with Leinster. They’ve topped the log in the URC in both the seasons that competition has been played, and they’ve played in two Champions Cup finals. Compared to most teams, that’s achieving a lot.

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And yet Leinster are a bit like the Ireland national team that they supply so many players to, in the sense that they’re starting to develop a habit of failing when their objective is in sight.

Yes, Ireland did win the last Six Nations, but they didn’t win the coveted Grand Slam, and thus become the first team since the end of the Five Nations era to do it successively.

Ireland also didn’t get beyond the quarterfinal stage of the World Cup in France last year, even though they were the world’s No.1 ranked team going into it and for most of the preceding year. It is also thus with Leinster.

They’ve topped the URC log, but the Stormers and Munster are the only teams to have their names inscribed on the trophy thus far. And while they’ve led for most of the two Champions Cup finals they’ve played in, La Rochelle came back in both to steal the trophy from under their noses.

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The Leinster disappointment must have been acute after last year’s decider in Dublin. It was a home Final for them, they were up by 17 points quite deep into the game. They surely thought they had the Cup won. Alas, Ronan O’Gara, who spent his playing career with Munster and therefore has no love for arch-rivals Leinster, had other ideas in his role as coach of La Rochelle.

So here we are – Leinster have once again been the most consistent team in the competition, or at least on par with Toulouse, who host Harlequins in Saturday’s other semifinal.

A semifinal in this competition is by no means a bridge too far for Leinster, who have won the last two they’ve played in.
But it does signify the start of the defining point of their season, the period where the pressure for them to perform and stack that trophy cabinet in the manner it should be stacked given the names on the Leinster team sheet becomes acute.

Leinster made mistakes in the quest for the double of Champions Cup glory and URC success that are unlikely to be repeated, firstly because of the learnings from the past and also because the competition formatting this year is easier.

Leo Cullen, the Leinster chief honcho, regretted fielding a second string team in the URC semifinal against Munster. This time around he won’t need to do that should his team get that far as the playoffs in the two competitions aren’t all being played successively like they were in the World Cup year.

They also have Springbok World Cup winning coach Jacques Nienaber involved in former England coach Stuart Lancaster’s former role as head coach, and among other things he would have brought the experience and knowledge of what it takes to win major playoff games. The Boks did not lose a RWC playoff game in the years that Nienaber was involved.

The other thing that Nienaber has brought is a much improved defensive system, one the Irish media are seeing as superior to the Ireland defensive system, which remains more passive than the Leinster rush.

Having an improved defence takes off a bit of the pressure when it comes to attack, as it means you don’t have to go in with the mindset of “We have to score a lot of tries because the opposition will score some”.

Ultimately though it all comes down to Leinster having to reverse the trend they’ve established in recent years: that of being a dominant force and playing the best rugby in Europe – until May, signalling the start of the deciding month of the season, arrives.

They play an ambitious Northampton in Saturday’s game, and the visitors have a mountain to climb given the massive support there will be for the host team. Tickets were sold out within three hours of going on sale, and we’re talking about an 82,000-seater stadium.

Leinster will be strong favourites to win, as will Toulouse against Harlequins on Sunday. Toulouse have won more Champions Cup trophies than any other team, five, and would have expected Leinster, who have won four, to join them when they made the last two finals and Toulouse didn’t. This stage of competition has been a bridge too far for Toulouse recently, but they’ve been in imperious form and should have too much for their English opponents.

The Challenge Cup is nowhere near the same scale as the Champions Cup, but a Sharks win on Saturday against what should be a strong Clermont-Auverne team in their lunch-time shoot-out at the Twickenham Stoop would edge them closer to making it into the Champions Cup next year. That’s the prize if they make it to the May 24 Final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and win it.

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