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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 21 January, 2020

'We want to drive the legacy, put another star on that crest'

Nobody has enjoyed more European success than Leinster and Toulouse, but the eastern province are determined to win the race for a fifth title.

ALL FOUR REMAINING teams in the Heineken Champions Cup have a winning track record in the competition, but the roll of honour is heavily tilted the way of Sunday’s semi-final at the Aviva Stadium.

Toulouse and Leinster have four titles apiece and whichever side forces their way into another final will be confident of taking an outright lead with crown number five.

The respective eras of dominance just barely overlapped, with Toulouse lifting their fourth Heineken Cup the year after Leinster’s first taste of European glory. That makes this weekend’s clash all the more tantalising as the French giants enjoy a renaissance.

Sean Cronin and Scott Fardy celebrate after the game Cronin celebrates the win over Ulster with Scott Fardy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Four European titles in nine years is a hell of a haul for Leinster, and the four stars sitting above their crest to represent all that success act as a bar to reach rather than a weight of expectation, says Sean Cronin.

“There’s obviously a huge legacy in this club. We want to back that up. What’s the point of being happy with success last year? That’s gone.

“We’ve got such a fantastic opportunity. We didn’t go through the pain of getting out of the pool and winning the quarter-final just to give up here.

“We want to get better and better, we want to drive the legacy, and put another star on that crest. That’s the sort of thing that drives us on.”

Sean O'Brien Sean O'Brien, with his four-starred Leinster crest, at training in UCD this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

That bullish attitude to take aim at the big prize goes hand in hand with a shorter-term focus that most winning sports teams share, a diligence to nail down every detail.

“They’re two very strong cultures which makes for a great game and atmosphere,” says  scrum-half Luke McGrath.

“We’ve spoken about it, but we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. It’s one moment at a time and they can score from anywhere, so we’ll have to be switched on for 80 minutes. 80-plus, potentially.

“You can’t switch off against Toulouse, they’ll punish you from all areas. Clermont probably thought they were… they were (33-44) up at the weekend, one sin-bin and (Toulouse) get their opportunities and they’re absolutely lethal in taking them.”

McGrath’s somewhat wary approach is fuelled in no small part by the chastening taste of defeat. Both the helter-skelter loss in Toulouse back in October and the more recent home reversal at the hands of Glasgow Warriors. So while Toulouse come to Dublin on the back of a brilliant battle with Clermont, there is cause for concern if you put faith in Leinster’s domestic form.

Luke McGrath Luke McGrath chats to the media this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

At the very least there was plenty for senior coach Stuart Lancaster to get his teeth into during yesterday morning’s defensive review, but in looking ahead he made sure to remind players of the standards they set, the legacy left in Europe last season.

“The players are driven to succeed, they want to achieve for Leinster,” said the former England boss.

“When you’re a coach you have to draw on both experiences. You draw on the  positives of winning last year: the adaptability we showed in the final, the positivity of beating a quality side like Saracens in the quarter-final and Scarlets in the semi-final. They were both at home, so you draw on all that, but you’d be naive not to learn from the past.

“We never skip around a difficult conversation about a review. we always draw a learning from it so we can become a better team.

I think if you’ve always got that mindset, you’re always going to be there or thereabouts.”

In many ways, the run to last season’s double success was fuelled by Leinster’s two semi-final exits in the 2016/17 season. As the final four approaches again, Cronin points out that they have already taken lessons from their only European loss in the 16 outings since falling to Clermont. 

“It’s something we’ve learned from the Toulouse game over there, where we had to get our mindset clear that we’re pretty much ‘the hunted’ this season.

“We drew a lot from the loss to Clermont the year before. It’s funny how you have to change your mentality a small bit. We’ve tried to adapt that way and realise there is a target on our back and teams are going to go up that extra 10-15% when they’re playing us and we’ve got to be ready for that.”

Even against fellow four-time champions, Leinster will be comfortable wearing the favourites’ tag.

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Sean Farrell

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