The men from Dublin will attempt to join multiple winners Toulouse, Munster, London Wasps and the Leicester Tigers as the latest side to not only confirm their dominance of European rugby, but also, to create a peerless dynasty.
Toulouse—beaten 32-23 by Leinster—conceded the Heineken Cup title in the semi-final at Aviva Stadium, ruling out an audacious attempt by the French giants to claim a remarkable five European trophies.
The vanquished French—at times skeptical losers—lavished praise on Leinster in an eloquent and flattering manner that could leave little doubt as to how genuine it really was.
Toulouse master coach Guy Novés—regarded by many as the next French test coach—summed it up post match.
“We fell to a team better than us,” he said.
“In every sense they deserve their victory. No more to be said about that. I recall certain cup matches that I lost that left a bitter taste, where I felt I’d been the victim of incoherent decisions. Here I have regrets, but I feel the better team won.”
Backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde felt that Leinster was playing “at another level” compared to other sides on the continent.
This was no rolling over by French rugby’s perennial contenders—a side like the Crusaders that never seems to go a season or two without making a statement just to remind fledgling powers of their place.
Leinster, though, is no baby on this grandest of stages anymore.
Noves had clearly done his homework, with the Toulousains methodically drawing Leinster defenders into the ruck throughout the match—clearly designed to compress the graceful arching Irish defence.
Much of Leinster’s tackling systems are in place due to Te Kuiti born Kurt McQuilkin, who has settled back into his Lake Taupo home after turning a perceived ‘soft underbelly’ for the Irish province into one of the most beguiling defensive screens on display in world rugby.
However, while Toulouse did work for their two tries—and strategically manipulate Leinster at times—the French did not have the menace or edge to their blade that has seen them rule the North before.
Leinster looked even better than they did when they claimed the Heineken Cup two years ago.
There may be no Rocky Elsom—a cult hero who has never played as well in Wallabies colours as he did in the sky blue—but up front, his power has been replaced by South African hooker Richardt Strauss and Sean O’Brien—the latter of which is arguably the best openside in the Northern Hemisphere.
While Isa Nacewa is another man from the South who shines in Leinster, it is no Toulon-like assembly of imported stars that does the job, but rather, a heady blend of Irish test players who are in career best form.
Of course there is Brian O’Driscoll, who is clearly slower, but if anything seems more physically imposing and has more devilish street-smarts (a ruck earned yellow card aside) than most players could ever hope to boast.
Add to this reinvigorated players like Gordon D’Arcy, Mike Ross and Jamie Heaslip, mixed with maturing talent such as Jonathan Sexton, and one feels if a year or two could be coaxed out of their elder statesmen, this may only be the beginning for Leinster.
How good are they?
A win over the Northampton Saints in the final would give Leinster a French and English treble that has probably never been equaled.
Toulouse, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne—three of the key powers in the Top 14—and England’s two domestic finalists from last season, Leicester and Saracens, have been unable to match what some are calling the “all-court” game of Leinster.
However, a furious Heineken Cup clash between Leinster and Toulouse—hailed by some as one of the great matches of the competition with test match intensity—did see the Irish under pressure at times, and Brian O’Driscoll felt his team were a bit off colour.
“We were a little bit flat, particularly in that first half and didn’t help ourselves but to grind out a result in a European semi-final you need a little bit of luck,” the evergreen Irish centre said.
“It’s the games where you perhaps don’t play at your very best but still get over the line that give you a chance to win some silverware; we have done that.”
“That (game) was like a Test match; that was the intensity and calibre of game it was. You realise that it takes an awful lot to get to the semi-final and final of the Heineken Cup and sides aren’t going to roll over, especially the current champions. We saw right to the death how they gave themselves a chance to win it, even when they were nine points down.”
While Munster has abdicated their role as a leading power (for this season at least) on the European stage with a shock home loss to Harlequins, Leinster has firmly embraced the baton as the dominant Irish power.
In 1999 Ulster claimed the Heineken Cup, the next three years Munster reached the final twice, before the Red Army claimed the greatest European prize in 2006 and 2008, with Leinster lifting the title 12 months later.
Ireland has had clubs which have footed it with and dominated all of the great clubs of England, France, Wales and Scotland, and it should bode well for Irish hopes in the World Cup.
Their marvelous win over England to deny the Red Rose a Grand Slam was the stuff of legend, and showed the ability of the Irish to play with enough passion and intensity to match any power.
Leinster’s form is such that some in Ireland believe their coach (New Zealanders Joe Schmidt) should be the front-runner to take over as the next test boss one day.
The former Clermont back coach took over from Michael Cheika—who won a Heineken Cup and Magner’s League title with Leinster—and has helped hone a strong Dublin based side that is one game from again conquering the North.
Under current Irish coach Declan Kidney, Ireland has a 2009 Grand Slam to go along with 19 wins from 29 test matches.
They will be in Pool C at the Rugby World Cup alongside the Wallabies, and the runner up of the group will likely face off against the Springboks in the quarter-final.