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Monday 18 February 2019

Red-hot Blues hoping to relive the glory years

Best could be Ulster's only survivor from Twickenham

GREAT DAY: Leinster’s Mike Ross and son Kevin with team-mate Gordon D’Arcy following their 2012 Heineken Cup Final victory. Photo: SPORTSFILE
GREAT DAY: Leinster’s Mike Ross and son Kevin with team-mate Gordon D’Arcy following their 2012 Heineken Cup Final victory. Photo: SPORTSFILE

When all had been said and all had been done, Leinster would have been emboldened by having Ulster down to The Aviva Stadium for the Champions Cup quarter-final.

If for no other reason than history tells us it could get humiliating in a hurry for the Northen Province.

It immediately returned to mind the last time this interprovincial derby too place on a European stage.

In 2012, Leinster were held out as the Heineken standard setters off the back of winning two of the previous three Cups in 2009 and 2011.

Irish people thronged to Twickenham, half in confidence; the other half in hope.

Record

Leinster completed a then record of three titles in four years with a record-breaking winning margin of 28 points (42-14), the highest points total and the most tries (5).

The gamble on playing 20-year-old Paddy Jackson at out-half backfired spectacularly on coach Brian McLaughlin.

The rookie was called ashore after just 46 minutes for the far more experienced Iain Humphreys, the younger and less accomplished brother of David.

That was just one of many reasons Ulster were unable to cause a shock.

Captain Leo Cullen, now the head coach, took time out to savour a special achievement.

"To quote Bubba Watson, I haven't got that far in my dreams," he said back then.

"There is something special about playing for the team you grew up supporting.

"That is the team you want to represent more than anything.

"Success with this team means the world to me."

In the aftermath, it was revealed how Brian O'Driscoll had keyhole surgery on his knee just eight days before the final.

"After we won one, we talked about not being content with that and trying to create some sort of dynasty and something to be remembered by," said O'Driscoll.

"We're going in the right direction towards doing that.

"But, I know this team will be hungry for more. That's why it's enjoyable.

"You're going in day-in and day-out because you know you're going to be pushed by the guy next to you.

"We played for one another out there and that really showed."

It was all set up for Leinster to carry on contending to be champions.

From Leinster's starting 15 at Twickenham, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy and Seán O'Brien are still playing away.

Comeback

Perhaps, it is a sign of modern times that McFadden is making his way back from injury, Sexton is just about ready to resume, Kearney is due to make his comeback against The Scarlets on Friday night and O'Brien got through nearly an hour for the first time in two months.

Leinster had to endure a deep dive in European form from 2012-to-2018 as Toulon recorded a hat-trick of titles and Saracens went back-to-back in a changing financial landscape.

In the intervening period, Sexton left and returned within two years and Healy rebounded from the cusp of retirement.

Matt O'Connor arrived and prematurely left, Cullen went through a period of accelerated learning and Stuart Lancaster was hired.

The true transformation has come from the through-put of talent from the Leinster Academy.

The likes of Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan have been to the forefront of the rehabilitation of Leinster's reputation.

All the while, Ulster lurched from one false dawn to the next.

Dan McFarland has transformed Ulster from a derided organisation into a respected one. It was just a year ago that they were in 'the doghouse' from turmoil off the pitch.

The coaching set-up did not work out, Director of Rugby Les Kiss moving on to London Irish.

They employment ofMcFarland looks like a master stroke at this point.

The Englishman has led a revival of the rugby culture as new signings, like Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore, have been better than those who preceded them.

Ulster captain Rory Best is likely to be the only survivor from 2012 by the time the quarter-final comes around.

"It was heart-breaking watching Leinster lift the trophy, but that is what you learn from," Best said, nearly seven years ago.

"You have to watch that and that has to drive you.

"Watching Leinster lift the trophy has to be in our minds now for the next 12 months."

Seven years on, Ulster will be back at The Aviva looking for redemption.

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