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'He’s a very key influence around the group' - Leavy still making his presence felt in Leinster

The flanker has stayed involved behind the scenes following his injury-enforced early retirement from the game.

Leavy watches on as Leinster warm up in Leicester last weekend.
Leavy watches on as Leinster warm up in Leicester last weekend.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AS THE LEINSTER players ran out onto the pitch for their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final meeting with Leicester last weekend, the eye was drawn to a figure leaning out from the dugout offering a final word of goodluck, baseball cap shieling the May sunshine, and, momentarily, his identity.

As the match began Dan Leavy became more noticeable on the touchline, urging on his now former teammates. One can only imagine what was running through the 27-year-old’s head as the white hot intensity of knockout European rugby unfolded before his eyes.

After a long, frustrating battle with injury, Leavy confirmed his retirement from rugby with immediate effect last month. His next step was to do what any young man would do in his situation – call some mates, book a flight and find some sun.

But now Leavy is back on home soil, and a man who had such a telling influence on the province during his unfortunately short career at the top continues to make his presence felt, surprising the squad upon their arrival in Leicester last week.

“He actually went across with our bag man Jim Bastick on the Thursday in the van,” explains Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.

“It gave him a very different view to the preparation and the things that go on behind the scenes in terms of that backroom support.

“I talked to him in the hotel on the Friday and he enjoyed the travel across on the ferry in the van and getting all the bits ready in the dressing-room and all that type of stuff behind the scenes.

“He’s been a great presence in the group. So he’s still been around, he was still training in the gym this week. He’s a great character Dan, and it’s important those guys stay connected because they’re there until the end, is what we hope.

Those connections are hugely important, but he’s a very key influence around the group and it’s important that injured guys understand that they still have a big role to play, because it’s just the little things… It’s another pair of eyes. You can be staring at the same thing but someone comes in with a different pair of eyes, especially with someone of Dan’s experience. It’s very, very useful to have him around for sure.”

Leavy will be involved again at the Aviva Stadium today, and his continued presence around the group provides some insight into the importance Cullen places on forming a bond with his squad. Even yesterday, as the Leinster boss looked ahead to this afternoon’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final meeting with Toulouse, he stressed the fact his players are representing their friends and family, and the responsibility and pride that comes with that.

It’s set to be their biggest challenge of the season to date. Reigning champions Toulouse don’t quite look like the side they were 12 months ago, but Cullen has been around long enough to know you can never underestimate the French giants.

the-leinster-team-huddle Cullen speaks to his squad during Friday's Captain's Run. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ugo Mola’s side travel to Dublin for the second weekend running following their gruelling quarter-final epic with Munster, and have yet to replicate the stunning form that saw them capture a brilliant Top 14 and Champions Cup double last weekend.

This year, they’ve won just twice over 80 minutes in Europe, and their path to this stage has seen them lose to both Wasps (away) and Ulster (home). They have however shown an ability to grind results out, beating Ulster at the death in their round of 16 second leg tie before coming from behind to edge Munster on penalties.

“These type of games, you don’t get extra points for style,” Cullen continues.

It’s about getting through to the next round and they’ve done that incredibly effectively. If you think they’d a man sent off in that Ulster game, they dig it out really, don’t they? They stay in the hunt, score a late try, they go to Belfast, they’re still hanging in, hanging in but they get the job done. 

“In many ways, it’s important and then you get the rate of improvement. You peak too early and you think you’ve got the perfect performance in a quarter-final, but where does that really serve you in a semi-final or final? Sometimes it’s just about getting through to the next round. That shows a different type of grittiness or whatever it is that they have. They definitely have got something.

“Obviously the game last week goes down to the wire – literally – and they have the three players who have the composure to step up and deliver when it really matters.

“For us, it’s trying to put in a performance, get the job done and move on to the next round. I think last week there was lots of good stuff in the first half, but jeepers we were fairly knackered I think it’s fair to say in the second half, which makes life difficult for ourselves.

“That’s been the focus this week, that accuracy, execution and delivering on I guess there’s the emotional energy you need at this time of the season. You talk back to La Rochelle (last year) where you’re rocking up and playing in an empty stadium over there. It was an unusual atmosphere.

johnny-sexton Johnny Sexton captains an unchanged Leinster starting XV against Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Even a couple of years ago here, where we lose to Saracens in an empty stadium as well and how bleak that felt at the time. It would be amazing to get a huge crowd here (today). Again, it’s making sure the players are feeding off that energy as well.

“There’s lots of little subplots. There’s set-piece battle, scrum, lineout, lots of talk about the half-backs but all across the park, there’s going to be some great battles there.”

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It’s set to be a blockbuster occasion as two of the biggest names in Europe go head to head for a place in the 28 May final.

Leinster last won this competition in 2018, and their focus ever since has been catching Toulouse at the top of the roll of honour, the province still one title short of the French side’s record haul of five.

“I remember watching Toulouse as a kid,” Cullen adds.

“When I was coming to my end of school the first final (Heineken Cup final, 1995-96) was in Cardiff and yeah, I remember watching Leinster playing in Cardiff in the semi-final that year while I was still in school.

“I remember exactly where I was watching the game, in my grandparents’ house. Watching that final, some of the great Toulouse players of that time. Coming into the tournament then as a player, some of the battles we had with Toulouse, we got some very tough beatings, particularly away in those early years.

“That time it was, could you actually compete with these teams ever really because so much of that early success they had in the tournament. But then you manage to close the gap at different stages, when Leinster went on to win Europe for the first time (2009)…

“You think of the history of the tournament, they have been the team that we have always seemed to be trying to chase in many ways. It’s no different (today). They are still the team we are chasing because they are a proud club, great tradition, huge resources and all the rest. It’s a great challenge for us.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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