Euro semi at Croke Park 'a real privilege' for Leinster

Investec Champions Cup semi-final

Venue: Croke Park, Dublin Date: Saturday, 4 May Time: 17:30 BST

Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra & BBC Radio Northampton; live text updates on BBC Sport website and app

As rugby again becomes a temporary tenant at the spiritual home of Gaelic Games in Ireland, both Leinster and Northampton Saints have been studying Croke Park's history in preparation for the Investec Champions Cup semi-final to be staged at the 82,300-capacity venue on Saturday.

Leinster have tended to play their Champions Cup knock-out games at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin but, with the national stadium already preparing for this month's Uefa Europa League final, an alternative home ground was required.

Croke Park holds the Gaelic Athletic Association's [GAA] biggest games of the season but other sports were historically not allowed to use the stadium.

That changed in 2005 and rugby made use of the relaxation when the Aviva Stadium was redeveloped between 2007 and 2010, while Saturday's contest is the first club game to take place there since Leinster met Munster at this stage of Europe's top competition 15 years ago.

From John Hayes' tears against England in 2007, to Johnny Sexton celebrating in the face of Ronan O'Gara during that seismic 2009 provincial derby, there were some famous chapters of Irish Rugby history written during a short stay on the other side of the city.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen captained the province in the latter with his squad this week being shown footage from a game often credited for tilting the balance of power in Irish provincial rugby.

"It brings back a few memories, hazy ones," Cullen said.

"It's a real privilege to be here, it's a magnificent stadium. It's iconic, not just in terms of sport but in Irish society. I hope we do it justice this week."

As Leinster focused on the sporting side of Croke Park's history, Saints' director of rugby Phil Dowson was keen that his side travelled with an appreciation of the stadium's place in the Irish "psyche".

While the Saints' Irish strength and conditioning coach Eamonn Hyland was able to give a presentation to Northampton's players on history that took in the Irish War of Independence, a counterpart in Leinster spoke of his own experience of big days on the Jones' Road.

Performance coach Declan Darcy represented Dublin's gaelic football side as a player before becoming part of their coaching set-up during an unprecedented run of success between 2013 and 2019.

“I’ve been in the stands plenty of times for some good days as well as plenty of bad ones," said Caelan Doris, whose home county of Mayo are without an All-Ireland title since 1951.

"[Darcy's] message to us was it magnifies your performance whether it is a good one or a bad one.

"Our prep over the last two weeks has been about getting our best performance and hopefully that will get the crowd involved, build an atmosphere and make it a special days for us."

A third big home gate for a European knock-out game in five weekends, Leinster have spoken about the importance of bringing the capacity crowd into the contest.

"We talked about [how] a crowd will only come alive on the back of a performance and we can’t rely on a performance just coming on the back of 82,000 people showing up," said Dan Sheehan.

"So we are focussed on how we start the game, on how we can get the crowd on our side and feeding off the energy Croke Park can give you."

Leinster's latest Champions Cup semi-final comes at a time when the province have been making plenty of off-field headlines both at home and abroad.

The signings of Springbok RG Snyman and All Black Jordie Barrett have intensified the debate over Ireland's system of 'central contracts', where the side's top players, now overwhelming from Leinster, are paid not by their province but the IRFU.

With Leinster having reinvested those savings into the remainder of their playing squad and coaching staff, there have been calls from elsewhere around the island that more should be done to help the other three provinces bridge the gap.

From further afield, Leinster were criticised for sending a heavily rotated panel to South Africa for two United Rugby Championship [URC] fixtures, and duly losing both, to rest players for this contest.

'We can't really get carried away'

For all the talk of their advantages though, they have not won Europe's top prize since 2018, nor the URC in either of the past two seasons.

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw previously called Leinster's pursuit of a fifth Champions Cup title an "obsession", and there is already a sense around this generation of players of if not now, when?

La Rochelle ousted them from this competition in each of the last three seasons, including the previous two finals, and beating O'Gara's side in the quarter-finals last month means they are favourites to be celebrating come the 25 May final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Sheehan believes the province have been guilty of looking too far down the line in recent seasons.

“We didn’t talk any further than that La Rochelle game," added the hooker.

"We beat them, everything was put into that, then we quickly turned the page to Northampton.

"That was by no means our final but it was a must-win to get to the next stage.

“We have been good this year at making sure we are not getting ahead of ourselves. We have been in the past, where we have come up short, probably looking too far ahead or maybe getting too complacent in either URC or Champions Cup.

"It’s nice to have the two weeks to really hone in on Northampton, who we haven’t seen in a few years.”