The stark reality is that Leinster haven't been to a URC final

LEINSTER WERE EXTREMELY close to winning the Champions Cup this season. Had Ciarán Frawley’s drop goal not edged wide to the left in the last minute of regular time, this would have been deemed a hugely successful campaign for Leinster.

But it did slip wide and Leinster had to face the heartbreak of another defeat at the final hurdle. 2019, 2022, 2023, 2024 – their last four appearances in the Champions Cup decider have produced miserable memories.

The Champions Cup is the prize that Leinster prioritise. They’re a bit obsessed with it. And their consistency in getting to the final is creditable. They keep coming back to put themselves in the mix. They have no divine right to win the competition and given that they’re competing against similarly strongly-resourced teams like La Rochelle and Toulouse, there are no guarantees.

But for Leinster to come up short in the URC semi-finals for the third season in a row is an obvious issue. They haven’t been to the final in this competition since the 2020/2021 campaign before the big South African sides joined and it became the United Rugby Championship. That was also back in Covid times and there were no fans in the RDS as they beat Munster 16-6 in the decider.

Whatever about the Champions Cup, it’s not a level playing field in the URC. When taking into account the central contracts the IRFU have been paying in full, removing them from their provincial budget, Leinster have greater resources than the other teams in the league.

No one else in the URC could realistically imagine replacing someone as highly rated as Stuart Lancaster with two-time World Cup winner Jacques Nienaber as their senior coach working alongside head coach Leo Cullen.

No one else in the URC has the majority of players from a top national team like Ireland.

Very few teams can retain second-choice or third-choice players as talented as Leinster’s. In fairness, they need them more than most teams given that their frontliners have their minutes managed so attentively by the IRFU. It’s a strength of Irish rugby but it means Leinster’s top players aren’t always available.

Not that any of them were missing for yesterday’s defeat, aside from Hugo Keenan who is on Ireland 7s duty. Most people understand Keenan’s desire to play at the Olympics but it must have been tough for Cullen and Nienaber to accept. Keenan is on a national IRFU contract so Leinster had no option of trying to stop it. They respected the player’s desire but he was missed in yesterday’s semi-final defeat to the Bulls.

This was the second time in three years that Leinster have fallen to Jake White’s side at this stage. In 2022, the Bulls came to the RDS a week after Leinster had lost the Champions Cup final to La Rochelle. Cullen and Lancaster’s side couldn’t lift themselves and failed to deliver a convincing performance.

Last season, Cullen and Lancaster decided to rest many of their frontliners for the home semi-final against Munster due to the Champions Cup final against La Rochelle being a week later. They nearly squeezed through but Jack Crowley’s late drop goal won it for Munster.

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the stark reality is that leinster haven't been to a urc final

Ross Byrne and Garry Ringrose.

This year, the circumstances were different again. The Champions Cup final took place two weeks before the URC quarter-finals so there was no resting of players in the knock-out stages. But Leinster had to travel for their semi-final and Pretoria was obviously the worst possible draw. Not only is it very far from Dublin, but it’s also at altitude. Sympathy for Leinster is in short supply. They hadn’t earned home advantage due to slip-ups in the regular season.

They lost home and away to Ulster and will have particular regrets about the defeat in Belfast last month, having turned down a straightforward kick at goal to extend their lead in the 68th minute. Ulster held them out and won it through a John Cooney kick.

There was the opening-weekend defeat away to Glasgow, which happens, but also the poor tour of South Africa in the two weeks before the Champions Cup final. Leinster left their key men at home, surely in part due to having to manage Ireland internationals’ game time, and lost to both the Lions and the Stormers.

Whatever about the second game in Cape Town, the team Leinster put out against the Lions was more than good enough to win. They simply did not play well and, in truth, looked poorly prepared.

Failing to get even a single losing bonus point on that tour was costly for Leinster so they only had themselves to blame for having to go on the road in the semi-finals.

The business end of the season is always challenging, especially for teams battling on two fronts, but the reality is that Leinster’s season has run out of steam. Since beating La Rochelle with a superb performance in the Champions Cup quarter-finals on 13 April, Leinster have lost five of their nine games. The Lions, Stormers, Ulster, Toulouse, and the Bulls have beaten them.

Peaking at the right time is everything and while Leinster’s performance in the Champions Cup final included lots of excellent stuff and nearly won them the game, they haven’t peaked in the URC.

It should be acknowledged that this has been a strange season, with Nienaber only arriving in November after his commitments with the Springboks concluded, while attack coach Andrew Goodman was also away at the World Cup with Samoa. With their two key coaches missing pre-season, Leinster left themselves playing catch up.

And there’s little doubt that some of Leinster’s internationals aren’t consistently performing with the same zip as they have done in the past. They went into World Cup pre-season almost exactly a year ago so it has been the longest of long seasons.

But every team has its own challenges and most of them don’t have the advantages Leinster do with their talented, deep squad.

The other big thing worth acknowledging is that the URC has become much harder to win since 2020/2021 when it was still known as the Pro14. The leading South African sides joined that summer and the quality of the league was transformed, with the Stormers winning at the first time of asking in an all-South Africa final against the Bulls.

The introduction of the South African sides has made it much harder to fight on two fronts and Leinster haven’t figured it out yet.

So it’s back to the drawing board again and while they will publicly discuss fine margins and nearly getting over the line, Leinster need to do some soul-searching in the off-season.

the stark reality is that leinster haven't been to a urc final

Leinster captain James Ryan at Loftus Versfeld.

Their playing identity has seemed muddled at times this season, almost stuck between the traditional ‘Leinster Way’ of expansive, attacking rugby and the far more confrontational, kick and defence-focused style that Nienaber specialises in. Maybe a full pre-season will allow them to marry those things more cohesively.

Tyler Bleyendaal will join as attack coach with Andrew Goodman becoming part of the Ireland coaching staff as their backs coach, while Leinster have some big-name reinforcements on the way. RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett will bring world-class ability to the Leinster squad, while they’re set to add veteran French tighthead Rabah Slimani.

The reserve prop slots are one area that Leinster probably need more from. Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong are excellent players but they are too heavily relied on to rack up long shifts for Leinster and Ireland, Porter in particular. Leinster could do with one of Michael Milne and Jack Boyle challenging Cian Healy, while they’ll hope to see Thomas Clarkson rising to the challenge of competing with Slimani.

Leinster will consider their out-half pecking order this summer. Ross Byrne is an easy scapegoat when they don’t win and gets far more than his fair share of criticism but Leinster have players of a different profile in this position if they want to try something different. They haven’t backed the athletic Ciarán Frawley as an out-half, while the highly talented 21-year-old Sam Prendergast is desperate for an extended run in the number 10 shirt. Harry Byrne hasn’t been able to edge past his older brother.

One of Cullen’s key traits is that he is calm when things are good and calm when things go wrong. But the reality is that a portion of Leinster’s fans are increasingly questioning his performance as the boss. This is not just social media chat but discussions in the stands. It would be a shock if Leinster considered Cullen’s position but the province cannot be content with another trophyless season.

This isn’t some disastrous era where Leinster have fallen into the doldrums but it’s clear that they’re not nailing the business end of the season.

No one will be hurting more than Cullen. He lives and breathes Leinster. There might be a few sleepless nights ahead as he figures out their next moves but let’s not forget that his senior coach, Nienaber, has plenty of power when it comes to decision-making.

Like Lancaster before him, Nienaber is Leinster’s key hands-on coach. He is more akin to a head coach, with Cullen in a director of rugby-style position. They’ll be planning and plotting together.

Next season will be different again, with Leinster having moved out of the RDS as it’s redeveloped, with the Aviva Stadium their home for 2024/25 and Croke Park there for some of the biggest games.

It would be a surprise if Leinster aren’t back in the mix again in the URC and Champions Cup next season. As always, winning the latter would be a huge achievement but Leinster also need to set their record in the league right.

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