Regardless of the team, semi-final losses always give way to a navel period, twisting and wondering what could have been.
Members of the Leinster organization will be no exception following the defeat of the last four Heineken Champions Cup games on Sunday, especially given the sentiment expressed by head coach Leo Cullen during the debriefing of ‘post-match after their 32-23 defeat at La Rochelle. that its players “are emptied because they know that there is more in them”.
Five days in Covid quarantine on the French team’s return to Dublin will only accentuate the self-examination, training sessions allowed in their bubble before Saturday’s Rainbow Cup trip to Connacht, their only outlet to vent such frustration.
Of course, this is all relative, just ask the trophy-less Munster supporters to celebrate in 10 years, but three years after adding a fourth European star to their shirts, attempts to clinch a record-breaking fifth title are failing. seem that more and more difficult.
Winning the PRO14 can bring satisfaction, but there is a feeling that the fourth consecutive league victory achieved at the end of March does little to compare to the continued pursuit of Champions Cup glory and being overtaken by the mountains of La Rochelle will only heighten the angst, especially for a number of frontline stars who face an immediate account in the form of the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad of this Thursday by Warren Gatland.
Given the South African-style World Cup-winning physiognomy that the Lions are sure to face in the three-test series with Siya Kolisi’s Springboks in July and August, coming in second behind Will Skelton, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Pierre Bourgarit at Stade Marcel-Deflandre will not have painted good images in the mind of head coach Gatland, who already had several headaches trying to reduce the abundance of talent in England , Ireland, Scotland and Wales on a cohesive tour.
Ireland’s strong performances at the Six Nations and outstanding performances in the Champions Cup quarter-final victory at Exeter Chiefs four weeks ago will not be overlooked following an afternoon of retribution on the French Atlantic coast.
Yet some who perhaps thought they had done enough to fly to South Africa may now find themselves in the midst of the undoubted number of 50-50 decisions Gatland and his assistant coaches face in the remaining hours available. before revealing their hand. Thursday.
One of those assistants, attacking coach Robin McBryde, was in Leinster’s dressing room as travel restrictions limited the other’s European club rugby to England, where attacking coach Gregor Townsend and defense coach Steve Tandy were present at Welford Road for the Challenge Cup semi-final between Leicester Tigers and Ulster last Friday night before heading South West to join Bath against Montpellier on Saturday, joined at Rec by Gatland.
They are sure they watched Leinster on TV the next day and what they saw in all of those matches involving potential Lions might well influence their judgment, fair as it may be when potential positional rivals have made it through the weekend. end or, like the Saracens contingent, went wild for a 56-0 victory over Nottingham in the second tier English league.
But back to the collective and the race for a record fifth star. The advantage is now with Toulouse, with a first final appearance in 11 years to be hoped for on May 22 when they face Top 14 rivals La Rochelle at Twickenham.
Cullen reflected on Sunday on what could have been for Leinster and what it would take to win another European title. Their fourth and most recent success came in 2018 at the expense of Racing 92 and a lot has changed since then, as they have experienced in deadly defeats to the Saracens, in the 2019 final and the 2020 quarterfinals and now in La Rochelle.
It reminded the three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain and head coach three years ago how arduous it had been to reach the top for the first time in 2009.
“The first one was very difficult to obtain. We had to wait a long time for the first one. So, yeah, it’s gonna be fascinating to watch. Toulouse are going for their fifth against La Rochelle, it would have been great to be there at Twickenham with some supporters.
“It’s always a challenge, that’s what’s amazing about the tournament. People expect you to roll up and it to happen for you, but you get a feel for the vibe of the city and what it means to the people here.
“It’s great, it was us at one point trying to try our first win. We will continue to fight, work on our game and make sure we are better. Bring in other guys and give them an understanding of what’s involved.
“When you go through part of the pain, you experience what it is. It’s making sure that when we get this opportunity again, we will improve. We have to be better and improve ourselves. “