The Leinster squad during yesterday's training session in UCD. Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Champions Cup

'It’s a fine line between being battle-hardened and battle-weary'

Leinster’s key men haven’t played since beating La Rochelle while Northampton have been busy in the Premiership.

LEINSTER AND NORTHAMPTON Saints have had very different run-ins to Saturday’s do-or-die Champions Cup semi-final clash in Croke Park [KO 5.30pm, RTÉ/TNT Sports].

Leinster effectively split their squad into two groups – the frontliners staying back in Dublin as a shadow squad shipped two heavy URC beatings in South Africa, the province losing 44-12 to the Lions and 42-10 to the Stormers. The South Africa contingent weren’t back in the building by the time yesterday’s training session in UCD had concluded.  

Only a handful of those who featured in South Africa will be called upon this weekend – the most likely candidates being Michael Ala’alatoa and Jason Jenkins (who both featured in the two games), and Ciarán Frawley and Harry Byrne (who only played the Lions game).

Northampton, on the other hand, have had their hands full in the Premiership, where they lead the table by four points after 16 rounds.

While most of Leinster’s key players enjoyed the last two weekends off, the Saints overcame Leicester Tigers 40-17 at home before losing a thriller with Harlequins last Saturday – the two sides trading 10 tries in a 41-32 epic infront of 60,000 supporters in Twickenham, where key men such as out-half Finn Smith, flanker Courtney Lawes and fullback George Furbank all played the full 80 minutes.

northampton-saints-courtney-lawes-reacts-after-harlequins-luke-northmore-right-scored-a-try-during-the-gallagher-premiership-match-at-twickenham-stadium-london-picture-date-saturday-april-27-2 Courtney Lawes played the full 80 minutes for Northampton on Saturday. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Now the Saints are challenged with picking themselves up for a testing trip to Dublin, and a game Leinster have been able to prepare for since breezing past La Rochelle on 13 April.

For the majority of those Leinster players who will take to the pitch in Croke Park, it’s been all eyes on Northampton from the moment the final whistle sounded at the Aviva three weeks ago.

As Leo Cullen took one group to South Africa, many of Leinster’s internationals had the luxury of a week off, while some who had less minutes under their belt trained away at UCD in a bid to stay sharp ahead of the semi-final.

In many ways it’s been an ideal way to prepare for such an important fixture, but that extended run-in also brings its own pressures.

Leinster will be heavy favourites to advance but the Croke Park experience will be a new challenge for this team – with Cian Healy is the only member of the current squad with previous experience of playing at Croke Park.

Northampton will arrive keen to cause an upset, and will hope their more taxing lead in stands to them against a Leinster side who for the most part won’t have played in three weeks.

“Yeah it’s a challenge, I think the result on Saturday will dictate where we got it right or not,” says assistant coach Robin McBryde.

“Who’s to know if we could have done anything differently. I think everyone understands the reasons why we chose to do what we did, the players have travelled back from South Africa this morning and we haven’t seen them yet. So when you think of the game coming up on Saturday, it’s tough for them to get up to speed for it.

It’s been a bit of a juggling act but they are experienced internationals, many of them are anyway. It’s a fine line between being battle-hardened and battle-weary so a lot of those players didn’t travel to South Africa.

“Those guys have had a lot of minutes in the Six Nations and you have to look at each individual case by itself. A lot of players can just turn up alongside on the day anyway.

“I played alongside a lot of players who did next to nothing all week and then on the Saturday, bang, they have so much confidence in their ability and the prep that they do, the way they look after themselves and how professional they are.

“They know taking to the field they are going to be in a good place. The result will dictate whether we got it right or not but it is having confidence in your own ability. You’ve got to back yourself.

robin-mcbryde Leinster assistant coach Robin McBryde. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“They’re [Northampton] off the back of a great match against Harlequins last Saturday, I enjoyed that. It has given us a bit more prep time, not so much intense game time, but I would like to think that won’t be so much of a factor in Saturday’s game.”

Everything Leinster have done this year has been geared toward conquering Europe again and with La Rochelle out of the way they have a strong opportunity to win the trophy for the first time since 2018.

Having overcome Ronan O’Gara’s men in such impressive fashion, Leinster will now hope they’ve managed their time correctly and arrive into the semi-finals ready to build on that quarter-final performance.

“It’s always in the back of your mind as to whether you got the prep right or not,” McBryde says.

“I’m not going to lie there but I trust them, I trust the players. They just have to trust themselves, that they can go out and do it.

“It’s just a little bit of an extended break but I have no issues. The way we trained last week… The level of detail retention is second to none. I’ve never worked with a group of players like them.”

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