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Dublin: 0°C Thursday 6 May 2021

The pain of Lyon driving Nacewa's quest to bring European success back to Leinster

“We’ve got to take the opportunity against arguably the best team in Europe.”

LYON STILL RANKLES with Isa Nacewa, even 11 months on.

What might have been, a bitter pill to swallow.

Isa Nacewa dejected Leinster suffered heartbreak at the semi-final stage last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Leinster captain, named to start for the first time since the start of February in today’s seismic Champions Cup quarter-final with Saracens, had no hesitation in bringing that painful April day up again.

The sting of losing to Clermont in Lyon after such an abject start has provided the source of much of Leinster’s renewed motivation this season, and collectively they have learned from their mistakes.

“Yeah, don’t get yellow carded,” Nacewa joked, referring to his early sin-binning.

“How we start games and how we try to build pressure on teams, reviewing that game, besides the yellow card, was tough.

“There were fundamental errors we got wrong which let them into the game. You just can’t afford that, not at top end rugby, not in quarter-finals.

“We’ve built each week throughout the year, even through the Six Nations campaign, trying to figure out ways to manage the game, no matter who is on the field.

“That was one of our biggest learnings this season.

“We’re focussed on us a lot this year. We learned a lot in the off-season and coming off the semi-final loss to Clermont last year. In-house, we know we’re trying to improve each week and that’s doing us well. The pool stages are so hard to get out of, we did enough work to get out of them well, now we’ve got to take the opportunity here against arguably the best team in Europe.”

A repeat of that lethargic start is almost unthinkable today, not least because Leinster have been the competition’s most impressive side this season, but the hosts know their best will be required if they are to dethrone back-to-back champions Saracens.

Isa Nacewa Nacewa is back and captains Leinster today. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Nacewa is one of the few remaining links back to the European Cup-winning teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012 but the 35-year-old didn’t shy away from admitting this afternoon’s showdown at the Aviva Stadium is among the biggest he’s played in for the province.

“This is up there, it’s a bit of an evolution curve since I’ve been back,” he continued.

“It is a big one, we’re coming up against the standard-bearers of the last few seasons. They’ve led the way and led the way well.

“It’s been a long week with a Sunday game, a lot of trainings, but an exciting one to be a part of. There’s nothing worse than having these weekends off. It’s why we’re here.”

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Having not featured since the Pro14 win over the Southern Kings on the first weekend of February, Nacewa returns to the Leinster midfield to partner Garry Ringrose in the absence of Robbie Henshaw.

The Auckland native says he has noticed a pep in the step of Ireland’s returning Grand Slam winners, with Leinster hoping they can emulate the feat of 2009 when they augmented the national side’s success with a first European crown.

“It’s impressive, it’s great to watch,” he said of the squad’s younger members. “All the guys have got massive support from the boys at Leinster. It was a great success and some outstanding individual performances.

“It does bring back another level of energy to the club. Come Monday of European week there is always a buzz around the place and they just add to an extra level of intensity that the group wants and it’s good to have them all back firing.

Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa Cullen and Nacewa at yesterday's captain's run. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“When you are successful along the way, you pick up things here and there. It is about them coming back into the Leinster environment and the way we do things in getting the blend right because they are two different environments.

“They’ve been great. There’s good energy and a good buzz around the place from everyone involved in the Grand Slam.”

Leinster will be hoping it all comes together again come kick-off at 3.30pm, when a sell-out crowd of 50,000 will welcome them out onto the Aviva Stadium pitch.

It’s make-or-break time.

“It’s going to be a Test-match intensity,” Nacewa adds. “In fairness that’s why we play the game, it’s what makes it exciting.

“There’s no second chances. It’s knockout footy. It’s definitely something you want to be part of because having these weeks off feels like a lonely place.

“The fans have been phenomenal. They’ve stuck with us throughout the year and it’s built nicely to this point. To see ticket sales in excess of 50,000, it’s 100% why we play the game.

“To see that support, and see a full Aviva Stadium, they’re the games you want to be involved in.”

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