Subscriber OnlyRugbyOn Rugby

Gerry Thornley: Danger of mental scarring for Leinster following latest gut-wrenching final defeat

Leo Cullen’s panel could do with a URC title more than ever now after another bruising Champions Cup experience

In many ways, this wasn’t the worst of Leinster’s three successive final defeats. Yet these Leinster players wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have deeper mental scars, and all the more so following another taut, tight decider.

A clutch of them have won a Grand Slam and retained the Six Nations, which in any other two seasons would rightly be considered as hugely successful.

It’s just that, akin to Ireland beating eventual champions South Africa in the World Cup, so Leinster have beaten Toulouse (twice) and La Rochelle (twice) in the last three seasons, but alas not on the days that mattered most.

An exceptional generation of home-grown players possess the ability to have won more, when three brilliant finals are added to that extraordinary World Cup quarter-final.

READ MORE

Superbly though Leinster and Ireland have played in these games, also add the last-ditch loss in Twickenham, and that’s five, season-defining games – all epics, all one-score games, all in the balance until the 80th minute and all lost. That’s a career’s worth of heartache in a relatively short period of time.

Leinster will again ruefully reflect on the calls or moments that went against them. Was there really any difference between Alexandre Roumat and James Lowe instinctively batting balls down one-handed, other than the questionable ruling that the former didn’t knock the ball forward?

There were many others: the Jack Willis high hit on Caelan Doris in the second minute that wasn’t reviewed, Jamie Osborne supposedly pulling Antoine Dupont (whom Mathew Carley seemed in awe of) from his feet, Jordan Larmour pinged for not releasing when he wasn’t the tackler, the questionable knock-on against Joe McCarthy before James Lowe’s finish which even a review mightn’t have upheld, a fairly clear-cut case of side entry by Willis in the 68th minute, and so on.

But as Leo Cullen admitted, they can only review what is within their control. That will in part begin with himself and his coaches. Harping back to Ronan O’Gara’s alleged half-time ‘discussion’ with Wayne Barnes in Marseille, given how Toulouse communicated with Carley and co, and seemed to engineer stoppages, could Leinster have been a bit more streetwise in how they managed the game last Saturday?

Superb though their scrum and kicking game were, Leinster certainly could have been more accurate and varied. This has been hailed as Toulouse’s greatest defensive performance and best final win, but Leinster’s handling errors contributed plenty to all those unrewarded incursions into opposition territory.

Of course, had Ciaran Frawley’s 80th minute drop goal been fractionally inside rather than outside the left upright, the hiring of Jacques Nienaber would have been hailed as a masterstroke.

In that scenario, Leinster would have kept the most potent attacking side in this season’s competition try-less. The hiring of Nienaber and increased focus on defence would have been hailed a success, for better or for worse. Yet it does still rankle that Leinster have deviated from their DNA.

Admittedly, this was the fifth Champions Cup final without a try after 80 minutes. Leinster had the mother of all comebacks in 2011 and ran amok a year later in Twickenham with five tries against Ulster. But as when winning in 2018, this was the third time they haven’t scored a try in 80 minutes of a final.

Toulouse have failed to score a try in three of their final wins, even after extra time in two of them and even with a refreshed Dupont, Romain Ntamack et al, they had to wait until extra time and effectively a two-man advantage before doing so last Saturday.

Looking ahead, Leinster may have many advantages domestically but they still deserve credit for mixing it with the elite of Europe and South Africa

Since 2008, Leinster have been Ireland’s sole representatives in eight Champions Cup finals as well as four semi-finals and two quarter-finals, but the other provinces are falling away.

Since reaching the last of three successive semi-finals in 2019, Munster have gone in the pool stages, reached one quarter-final and made two Round of 16 exits. This season was Ulster’s sixth pool exit along with a Round of 16 exit and two quarter-finals since 2014. Two Round of 16 and five pool exits have been the summit of Connacht’s achievements.

It’s a delicate balancing act for the IRFU but in restricting their contractual system to ensure a more level playing field among the provinces this could, inevitably, weaken Leinster’s hand in the Champions Cup and URC. That’s why they really needed this one, and that fifth star is only to become more difficult to attain.

There’s no guarantee at all that Leinster will become the first side to reach four finals in succession. For the first time ever, one league (the Top 14) has provided four champions in succession. As in La Rochelle after the previous two finals, the celebrations in Place du Capitol are worth their wait in gold to the tournament and what’s more Bordeaux/Begles are the coming force, and now there’s the South Africans as well.

Dupont and Toulouse alike have benefitted from his excursion into Sevens. He attributed his improvement in the jackal and those four turnovers to Sevens. He is 27, Ntamack 25, and they’ve a new wave of young talent which has infused this campaign.

Whereas the Toulouse match-day squad had an average age of 26.9 and just two players over 30, Leinster’s was 28.3 and contained eight players over 30, with key men Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe aged 32 and 31.

That said, Toulouse had seven non-French players in their match day squad, with Ange Capuozzo not even in the ‘23′, and how much will it increase Leinster’s chances with RG Snyman and Jordan Barrett in their ranks next season?

But the sense of missed chances gone a-begging will be acute in the Leinster camp this week. They could do with a URC title more than ever now.

gerrythornley@irishtimes.com