Leinster’s Champions Cup downfall was of their own making

Disconsolate Leinster players walk off with their heads bowed
Leinster fell at the final hurdle... again - Getty Images/Sam Barnes

Depending on your sources, the term “monkey on your back” could be a mid-1930s reference to the burden of addiction. But in rugby terms, and a tad lazily in some quarters, it was a phrase used in its more common definition of a burden you struggle to shake off when liberally applied to Leinster’s quest to avoid a third successive loss in the Champions Cup final and fourth finals loss in the past six seasons.

Prosaically, the monkey remains there, as Leinster narrowly failed to beat Toulouse in a pulsating, if flawed, game that was only the third such match to require extra-time. From a sports psychology point of view, is difficult to find definitive evidence to support the monkey parallel apart from the recent and simple correlation of finals to losses. Was it a psychological masterstroke from the Toulouse master, Antoine Dupont, to allude to Leinster’s previous two finals failures or was he just stating facts? When considering where you stand on this question, pause to consider that Leinster had twice beaten Dupont’s side on their way to those final losses, so, which side would have the psychological edge from his observation?

As with nearly every other psychological construct there is no undisputed way to prove the ‘monkey’ claim. Even so, to the more observant observers, there were part of Leinster’s game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium that do require scrutiny. Whether you eventually attribute Leinster’s failure to the cumulative stress concept or, as I do, think it was the instant and considerable stress of this particular game, you can pinpoint several atypical moments of imprecision, and arguable decision-making, that proved seminal.

In the first half, Leinster just edged much of the play yet found themselves chasing the lead because several promising positions were wasted by simple failure to hold onto the ball. Dan Sheehan, who was elsewise outstanding, went for the line from a long way out and however good the tackle by Blair Kinghorn and breakdown work of Dupont, the fact is that Leinster could not fashion enough clear support to convert this gilt-edged chance to record the game’s first try. Previously, this is the sort of chance which Leinster have taken with something approaching alacrity.

In similar vein, Leinster have been one of the most accomplished packs at scoring from driving mauls from their own line-out throws. In this game, they failed to get over the Toulouse line when they kicked for the corner in the 9th, 43rd, 50th and 63rd minutes. These opportunities now count as major, not half-chances, given the huge difficulties in successfully defending them. Last Saturday, there were two egregious flaws with Leinster’s attempts.

The first is that two of their kicks resulted in line-outs that were around 15 metres out, instead of the ideal five metres. It might not sound much, but this difference of 10 metres is not just about having to drive a maul further to score. If you have 15 metres to play with you can take more chances on creeping your way round the side of a maul to prevent it being played. You can flirt with dropping the maul if it looks like gaining momentum, without conceding a penalty try. These options are not open when you defend from just five metres, where there is the added disincentive of a player getting yellow carded more easily.

You would have got long odds-on Leinster not converting at least one of these drives, but Toulouse’s defence held and the chance in the 50th minute was the lost glaring miss. The greatest temptation in this situation is to drive forward without properly securing the ball at the back of the maul, away from would-be defenders. When attackers feel a slight weakening of the maul defence, the urge is to drive forward before making absolutely certain that the ball is positioned and protected properly. Leinster’s drive initially looked secure but failed because it splintered and was ultimately stopped.

What inevitably arises from such a series of failures is to question whether it was right to not take kickable penalties and keep the scoreboard turning over. I readily admit that this issue is almost entirely outcome biased, and much easier with hindsight. Nonetheless, given that the majority of finals have been decided by seven points or fewer, there has to come a time when a natural inclination to go for the jugular has to be tempered with circumspection – this is a question of leadership.

It became increasingly obvious that this was going to be a close game (some would say it was always so) and when Ciaran Frawley’s last-gasp drop-goal attempt went wide, how much would Leinster have given for one kickable penalty to have been in the bag? To avoid matching the Buffalo Bills, who lost four Super Bowls in a row, maybe Leinster need to be more pragmatic.

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