Leinster players at the final whistle. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
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'We’ll bounce back' - Leinster still chasing that elusive fifth star

For now, Leo Cullen’s men go chasing their first URC title since 2021.

REACHING THREE CHAMPIONS Cup finals in a row is a rare feat of consistency, even if that won’t feel like any consolation for Leinster now.

As they wallow in misery, all that will matter to them is that they lost those three consecutive deciders. Throw in the 2019 defeat to Saracens and the painful reality is that Leinster have been beaten in their four most recent Champions Cup final appearances.

Still, this points to Leinster’s ability to be among the best teams in the competition on a regular basis.

On Saturday, they were part of a sensational final. The quality was akin to Test rugby. It reminded this writer of that stunning World Cup quarter-final weekend in Paris last year when New Zealand and South Africa beat Ireland and France, respectively.

Leinster and Toulouse are two excellent teams and it’s doubtful whether anyone else in this season’s Champions Cup would have matched their ability in the decider. La Rochelle have been at this level in the last few seasons but they will have been disappointed with their effort in this campaign.

This is the elevated standard that Leinster are capable of playing at. Despite their inability to convert repeated visits to the Toulouse 22 into points, Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber’s side nearly won this final in the last minute. Ciarán Frawley’s drop goal attempt was just wide.

Leinster have no divine right to win the Champions Cup. They have been very close in these three finals but have been pipped by impressive La Rochelle and Toulouse teams. Let’s not forget that both of those clubs also have big budgets and fanbases like Leinster.

There is a growing perception that Leinster have failed if they don’t win the Champions Cup but that’s arguably disrespectful to the teams who have beaten them.

caelan-doris-leaves-the-pitch-dejected-after-the-game Will Connors leaves the pitch in London. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

They have lots to learn from their latest disappointment but it would be a surprise if Leinster aren’t firmly in Champions Cup contention again next season.

The age profile of their squad is fairly healthy, even if back-up loosehead Cian Healy will be 37 by the time next season’s competition kicks off. Second-choice tighthead prop Michael Ala’alatoa is leaving this summer and there has still been no confirmation of a new signing there, so the prop depth is presumably something Cullen and his coaches have been discussing plenty.

Otherwise, most of the pieces that got Leinster so close to the title will be back for more. 

“We’re still an incredible squad, we have top-end players across every position,” said Will Connors on Saturday in London.

“That’s not going to break us. We’re going to come together, we still have the URC to bounce back with, we want a strong finish there. It’s a really tight group, this group will never fade away.

“We’re all mad to get that extra star on, to create a legacy that we’re all striving to do. We go again next year, we’ll bounce back.”

They will be supplemented by the arrival of two world-class players in Springboks lock RG Snyman and All Blacks centre/fullback Jordie Barrett. Even one of those players might be the difference if Leinster get to another final. That’s why they’re spending the money on them. There’s no one quite like Antoine Dupont but we saw again on Saturday how one special player can be the difference.

The problem for Leinster is that Toulouse and Dupont are going nowhere. They’ll be back looking for title number seven next season, while La Rochelle will surely be as motivated as ever to bounce back before a few of their older key players lose their powers.

Northampton showed up impressively this season and will expect to get stronger, even if the inspirational Courtney Lawes is on the way out, while Bordeaux look like a club on the rise and the Bulls have weapons that can hurt any team.

the-leinster-bench-dejected The Leinster bench in the closing minutes. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

All of them will hope to be better by next season, but Leinster will feel the same. There are clearly some harsh lessons in last weekend’s final for this team, individual players, and the coaching staff. There will be major regrets.

But this season is far from done. Leinster are expected to rotate for this Friday’s final regular-season URC game against Connacht at the RDS, all the more so because the frontliners just played more than 100 minutes in an ultra-intense Champions Cup final.

It’s an important game on Friday because Leinster need to leave themselves in position to finish in the top two if the Bulls lose away to the Sharks or Munster are beaten in Limerick by Ulster on Saturday.

The big guns will all be in harness for the URC quarter-finals on the weekend of 7/8 June, with Leinster guaranteed a home draw. However, they could be on the road if they reach the semi-finals the following weekend and might also face an away final if they progress to that on 22 June.

It’s obvious that the Champions Cup will always be the main prize Leinster chase but it’s gone again for now. The URC is a big honour, all the more so because they haven’t won it since 2021.

If they’re to finish this season with a trophy, they’ll need to carry some of the lessons from a third consecutive Champions Cup final defeat with them.

“The difference between this year and last year is we fully believed, even up to the last few minutes, that we were going to go and win,” said centre Robbie Henshaw.

“There is full confidence in the group that we will win. Obviously not this year but we’ll keep building and keep building. We can’t look back, you have to keep going forward.

“We have a chance to go out next week and put our best shot into the URC and try and win a trophy this year.”

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