Subscriber OnlyRugbyOn Rugby

Gerry Thornley: Leinster have become victims of their own success

Every winner loses, but that will be no consolation to Leinster or Toulouse after Saturday’s Champions Cup final

Leinster don’t get the credit they deserve, and to a degree it’s their own fault. Next Saturday in north London, Leinster will contest their third successive Champions Cup final. This is, actually, quite an achievement in its own right.

After all, in doing this, they have won 21 of their last 23 matches in the Champions Cup, and only thrice before has a team reached three successive finals – Toulouse in 2003/04/05, Toulon in 2013/14/15 and La Rochelle in 2021/22/23. The difference, of course, is that Toulouse won two of those three finals, Toulon won all three finals in succession while, after losing their first final, Ronan O’Gara’s team won their ensuing two.

By contrast, Leinster could conceivably be within one game of a unique and entirely unwanted achievement: losing three finals in a row. If finals are undoubtedly the best matches to win, they are the worst to lose.

That’s the cruelty of finals. Losing them means a season’s work can go unrewarded. They linger through the summer months and beyond.


More than any other club or province in the European/South African firmament, with each near miss Leinster judge themselves, and are judged by their former players and supporters, almost entirely in the prism of whether they earn the right to have another star stitched on to their jerseys. Anything less, and Leinster’s season is widely regarded, within and outside, as a failure. That seems an excessively high barometer. Perhaps a little perspective would be no bad thing.

This yearning or magnificent obsession for a firth star has intensified since Leinster’s fourth triumph in the final over Racing 92 in Bilbao in 2018. It rivals that of Munster when they pursued their Holy Grail from the first of two losing finals in 2000 to the first of two winning finals in 2006.

Finals should by rights be the toughest matches to win. As Sean Skehan observed after Terenure College lost in their third successive AIL final at the end of last month (having lost one and won one previously) no team has a divine right to reach a final and no team has a divine right to win one either.

Perhaps Leinster and to a greater degree their supporters lost sight of this a little, and in this, the province are somewhat victims of their own success. They won their first four finals in 2009 (19-16 v Leicester), 2011 (33-22 v Northampton), 2012 (42-14 v Ulster) and 2018 (15-12 v Racing).

In three finals since, Leinster have lost in 2019 (10-20 to Saracens), in 2022 (21-24 to La Rochelle) and last year (26-27 to La Rochelle again).

Save for the rout of Ulster in Twickenham when in their O’Driscoll, Sexton, Healy and O’Brien pomp, the margins have been minimal.,Witness four settled by three points or less. Even the second biggest, in 2011, was after they trailed 22-6 at the break.

Next Saturday, Leinster and Toulouse will each contest a record-equalling eighth Champions Cup final. Again, an achievement that will be scant consolation to the losers.

Toulouse may be the most successful club in Champions Cup history with their unequalled five wins, but they have also lost in two finals (by 20-27 to Wasps in 2004 in the last play of the game, and 13-16 to Munster in 2008), not to mention three semi-finals in the last four seasons – twice to Leinster.

Roger Federer won 20 Grand Slam titles, yet he also lost in 11 finals. Rafa Nadal has won 22 majors, but he has also been runners-up eight times. Novak Djokovic has won 24 Grand Slam titles, but he has lost in 12 finals.

But what has also made Leinster’s anticlimactic sense of loss in the last two seasons is that in each campaign they played magnificent rugby en route to the final, topping all the attacking metrics, be it tries scored, points per game, line breaks, defenders beaten, passes, carries and metres made. And a fat lot of good it did them.

This time Toulouse have topped all those charts whereas Leinster have taken a slightly grittier route to the final, perhaps looking to peak for certain games. The highlights have been that vengeful, rain-sodden pool win in La Rochelle last December and ending the holders’ two-year reign when beating them 40-13 in the quarter-finals.

In all of this though, while Jacques Nienaber’s influence on their defence has been both palpable and fascinating, their attack has not purred – the two things perhaps being somewhat connected.

Leinster’s tries and points conceded this season, both in the Champions Cup (12 and 105) and overall (54 tries and 448 points) are actually similar to the last two seasons from the same number of games played. Excluding their URC home game against Connacht, their contrasting tallies last season were 13 tries and 95 points in the Champions Cup, and 61 tries and 446 points overall.

But their attacking stats have dropped. Leinster are making fewer line breaks, beating fewer defenders and scoring fewer tries. In the last two seasons en route to the final, they scored 6.7 and 6.1 tries per game, whereas this season they have scored 4.3. Adding in the contrasting 17 URC games, the overall tallies have dropped from 113 tries two seasons ago and 120 last season, to 106 in this campaign.

This cannot be attributed to Johnny Sexton not being there this season, as he didn’t play in any of Leinster’s Champions Cup games last season. Hugo Keenan reminded us on Saturday night in the Kingspan Stadium, on the other hand, that his speed, line breaking and creativity was missed in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.

Keenan had been an ever-present in the last two seasons while Garry Ringrose, who hasn’t featured in the knock-out stages at all, missed only one game over the last two campaigns.

Most likely though, the reduction in attacking output this season is attributable to the changed emphasis on defence, to having a nastier, big-game mental edge.,In other words to winning games such as next Saturday’s in north London.

But ultimately, it’s worth reminding ourselves that when the two most successful sides meet in the final for the first time, there will be a winner - and their rich histories will not safeguard one of them from losing.