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Sunday 22 July 2018

Stuart: bottom line is they cracked first

Leinster 15-12 Racing 92

Job done: Dan Leavy of Leinster during the homecoming in Energia Park after Saturday's Champions Cup final win in Bilbao
Job done: Dan Leavy of Leinster during the homecoming in Energia Park after Saturday's Champions Cup final win in Bilbao
Isa Nacewa and Jordi Murphy of Leinster lift the cup along with their team-mates after the Champions Cup final win over Racing 92 at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao

Just to compare. In 2009, Leinster lost out to Castres Olympique and London Wasps away in rounds four and five, respectively, to barely survive the Pool phase of the Heineken Cup, forcing the infamous 'bloodgate' quarter-final away to Harlequins.

In 2011, Leinster lost away to Clermont-Auvergne in round three in the only blemish on their way to a second trophy.

In 2012, Leinster scraped a draw away to Montpellier in the first round before reeling off eight straight wins.

This year, Leinster blew away all before them to go nine straight in the Champions Cup, a feat only previously accomplished by Saracens on their way to their maiden title in 2016.

Coach Leo Cullen, the captain of the first three European Cups, shed a tear in becoming the first man to captain and coach a club to the ultimate prize in the club game.

The Wicklow wonder was back in control at Leinster's understated homecoming in the sunshine at Energia Park yesterday.

It was Cullen's humility to admit to himself that he needed a voice of experience that caused him to make a phone call in late August of 2016 that began a rapid ascent.

First contact

Career coach Stuart Lancaster cast his mind back to his first contact from Cullen.

"I was actually down in London, speaking at a coaching conference," he recalled.

"The number flashed up and I didn't even recognise the area code, the +353.

"Then he said: 'Hello Stuart, it's Leo Cullen here'.

" I said: 'How are you doing', and you know that Leo is quite quietly spoken, and he said 'what are you up to?'

"I said: 'not much really,'" he smiled.

"And he said: 'Do you fancy coming to Leinster?'

"I asked: 'Why, what's the opportunity?'

"Then he went on to describe it and I flew over that weekend on the Sunday."

Lancaster flew back hom e and spoke to his family and to Ireland defence coach Owen Farrell, his former assistant at England.

"By the middle of the week, I had agreed that I was going to come over and start the following week.

"The contract got sorted in about ten minutes and that was pretty much what happened.

"The following Monday morning, I got the 6.30am flight from Leeds Bradford, arrived at 7.30am.

"Guy picked me up and before I knew it I was with a group of players."

Twenty months on, he has redeemed his reputation as a coach and rejuvenated Leinster.

"I felt that the progression we needed to make this year was to be more adaptable, to have different ways of winning.

"When you are playing against the best teams in Europe with the best players and the best coaches, you can't just play one style and expect to win.

"They will throw something at you, which means you have to change and adapt. That is the progression we've made."

Sure enough, the progression was the difference as Leinster shelved their way for the hard way.

"We talk about Leinster rugby and the ability to play an offloading, fast- flowing game.

"In your mind's eye, that's what you want it to be," he said.

"Sometimes, the opposition is going to go very hard at the breakdown. Sometimes the ball's a bit greasy.

"Sometimes you've got incredibly physical defenders and the space is on the outside. But you can't quite get the ball there.

"That was very much the way the game went. With penalties on either side being kicked and missed, it became tense by the end.

"They cracked first. That was the bottom line.

"The penalty we got at the end was from a Garry Ringrose line break from a positive move that we instigated.

Positive

"So I think positive rugby won out in the end. But it wasn't pretty.

"It was tough watching as a coach. But I always had a deep belief that the players could do it, that we could do it this year. I really did."

It led to an emotional union with his wife Nina and son Daniel at pitchside in Bilbao.

"I just wanted to have a moment with them, really, just to remember it all," he said.

There was facetime with his daughter Sophie five minutes later to complete the family circle and discover closure in northern Spain.

"They were there all the way through my time with England.

"They were there during the World Cup and they were there at the end of the World Cup."

The Champions Cup too.

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