ROB KEARNEY sees Pro12 League silverware as the difference between success and failure this season.
“This year is even more important because there has been a lot of change. Our performances dipped a huge amount,” he admitted.
There is a silver lining to what has been a period of unease with Leinster bowing out to Toulon in Europe and struggling to claw back Ulster in the PRO12 semi-final.
“It is a really good sign if you’re playing pretty poor throughout the season and you can still come away with a trophy at the end of it,” he said.
“Given our history over the last five years with winning, to envisage a season where that didn’t happen would illustrate that we have taken a little bit of a step backwards, I would say,” he said.
“It is difficult to maintain that throughout a whole year when you do lose key guys and a key coach. I suppose there is part of you that says well this is only normal and acceptable’.”
Joe Schmidt, Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa were so influential: “Then, there is another part of you that says it’s only three guys’.
“You have a strong team ethic. You’ve got a lot of players. You’ve got a strong culture there. When you look at it from that perspective, a part of you says, well, you shouldn’t make excuses for that.
“I think if we can win at the weekend and get another trophy, then it will be a pretty good result for us”.
There is a personal confidence that comes with having been there and having done that. So many times. Kearney is way too experienced to be taken in by anything more than what has to be done on Saturday.
Winning has kept the feeling of frustration at Leinster not scaling the heights of recent years at bay.
“If you’re losing a lot of those tight games, well then the frustration is going to creep in more,” he admitted.
“Taking our performances aside, we got beaten by the European champions and we’re still in the final of the Rabo’. We’re still quite good from a results point of view”.
There is also sympathy for coach Matt O’Connor in his first year working under the difficult terms and conditions set down by the IRFU.
The system works in such a way that the more successful Leinster are, the more players will be taken by Ireland, the more difficult it makes it for the Leinster coach to hold onto that winning feeling.
“It’s tough on a coach too. He’s in a pretty unique position. There’s not too many other teams in the world where the coach has to put up with that type of stuff.
“That’s the nature of the Irish provinces and he knew that was going to happen. It says a huge amount about our full squad, and the depth we have there.
“During the November internationals and the Six Nations we are still able to put points on the board. It is probably the reason we finished top”.
Kearney currently resides in a place where confidence is not an issue, especially with fellow British & Irish Lion Stuart Hogg a possible absentee for PRO12 League final foes Glasgow.
The non-appearance of Hogg would take away Glasgow’s greatest attacking threat, with the Scottish rumour mill churning out stories of an ever- worsening working relationship between the player and coach Gregor Townsend.
Peter Murchie was Townsend’s man for the frantic semi-final win over Munster at Scotstoun as the sought after Hogg was left to contemplate where he will play next season.
“There’s something going on there behind the scenes. I have no idea what it is,” considered Kearney.
“It is a huge surprise. He is not just one of Glasgow’s best players. He is one of Scotland’s”.
The Hogg issue can either divide or bond a group and former Scotland fly-half Townsend does appear to be a unifying force at a club which is learning and growing quickly.
“They are probably the form side of the tournament this year,” conceded Kearney.
“We were pretty lucky to beat them last year (in the semi-final). Did they go 14 points up after 15-20 minutes? And they’ve come on a huge amount as a team again this year”.
How so? “I just think they’re better. The coaching staff looks better. They’re much more direct. They’ve a really good team ethic there. They seem to play for each other.
“Their defence has been very, very strong and when they get into the opposition 22, they generally come away with points”.
Good defence means good discipline. This is where Leinster have allowed their standards to drop in recent weeks. They did so in the Heineken Cup quarter-final; the PRO12 League semi-final too.
“Our discipline has been pretty poor over the last few weeks, giving away a lot of kickable penalties. When you get to finals stage, you can’t do that,” he said.
Discipline in defence and punch in attack will have to be there to put back--back titles together.