Leinster ready for another tilt at Europe’s top prize
By Daire Walsh
IT is destination St James’ Park for Leinster on Saturday evening as they look to preserve their perfect record in European finals against formidable English Premiership outfit Saracens.
In addition to being four-time winners in the recent past (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2018), the Blues are yet to lose out in a top-tier continental showpiece. They also contested the Challenge Cup decider back in 2013 – comfortably overcoming the challenge of Stade Francais at the RDS Arena.
While Saracens secured back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017, they were defeated by a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired Toulon at Cardiff five years ago. Their current Director of Rugby is Bangor man Mark McCall, who is seeking to become the first Irish coach to guide a club to three European titles.
His understated demeanour – and the boundless resources at his disposal – means his achievements aren’t always recognised in his homeland, but he has established an impressive body of work nonetheless.
There has always been a strong Kildare influence at the heart of Leinster’s European successes and the same may well be true this weekend. When they finally reached the promise land under Michael Cheika 10 years ago, Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was the sole try scorer in a 19-16 triumph over Leicester.
Heaslip’s fellow Newbridge College alums Geordan Murphy and Johne Murphy were included in the Tigers match day squad. This was only the start of the Heineken Cup odyssey for Leinster and Heaslip was joined by Suncroft’s Fergus McFadden for their much-discussed 2011 victory at the expense of Northampton.
Both men returned to play starting roles in their subsequent demolition of interprovincial rivals Ulster 12 months later – McFadden converting a Sean Cronin try in the dying embers at Twickenham Stadium.
A full six years passed before Leinster returned to a top-tier European showdown, in which time Heaslip and McFadden continued to be a major part of the Ballsbridge furniture. Yet Heaslip had been forced into retirement through injury just a few months before their final with Racing 92 and McFadden was ruled out after damaging his hamstring in an earlier round.
Nevertheless, Kill’s James Tracy appeared in a final-quarter cameo and Joey Carbery (Athy) was an unused replacement as Jonathan Sexton and club captain Isa Nacewa edged them over the line.
Carbery has since departed for pastures new at Munster, but the Lilywhites representation is alive and well at Leinster. Despite McFadden being suspended for a headbutt incident involving Ulster’s Sean Reidy, a recent injury to Cronin could propel Tracy into the starting line-up.
There is also a potential spot within the 23 for Adam Byrne, the former Naas CBS having featured prominently this season only to indirectly lose his place to Rob Kearney in the past few weeks.
The Blues are also challenging on two fronts, with a home PRO14 semi-final coming fast on the horizon. A Munster side that included Eadestown’s Tadhg Beirne squeezed past Benetton at Thomond Park on Saturday to set-up another battle with their arch rivals.