This week it seemed impossible to escape discussion of ten-year struggles for recognition, an odyssey to overcome non-believers doubting claims of ones substance or genuine contention. Fitting then, that in the week that Ireland finally woke up and acknowledged the pure horror that our children experienced at the hands of the Irish Catholic Church , that Leinster also finally threw off the shackles of being Europe’s Nearly Men and making that final plucky ascent to the top of the pile in continental club rugby.
What a moment, with nothing more needing to be said from a lowly Meathman. The only thing missing, really, was Ryle Nugent, the epitome of south Dublin rugby fanaticism, sent inexplicably to sound out the quality of a third-string Irish team taking on a fifteen of Canadian minnows at a college ground in Vancouver. Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes are a nice combination but it’s not like having Nugent and Ward totally losing the plot the second Gordon D’Arcy steals an inch.
What’s notable about Leinster’s victory, however, is not that Leinster beat Munster (or anybody else) along the way, but the sheer grit and tenacity to keep things rolling throughout a gruellingly long season. Studying for my finals a few weeks ago I came across one particular nugget regarding management, a universal truth undeniable, unbendable and unavoidable. No matter what avenue of life one competes in, success depends on a strategy characterised by four specific qualities – goals that are consistent, simple and long-term; an objective appraisal of resources; an intimate understanding of the competitive environment; and each of these three being backed up by effective implementation.
Leinster, this year, have finally gotten it together – the simple wonder is that it didn’t happen any earlier. Since Michael Cheika took over at the Leinster helm in the summer of 2005, it’s been a slow but definite rise to the top. Realistically, having earned that most prized display of respect, a standing ovation from the home Toulouse fans after Leinster scored four tries beating them 41-35 in their 2006 quarter-final, one can blame the Leinster branch of the IRFU for not doing a better job of ensuring crowd equality on that infamous day in April 2006 when Munster simply tore Leinster to shreds. The shock of that day set them back years; the trauma alone took three years to overcome.
But back to the point – or, rather, the four main points.
Goals that are simple, consistent and long-term: well, that part’s easy. Having successfully annexed the Magners League on an ongoing basis, there were no worlds left to conquer, but one. And given the length and constant international interruptions of a rugby season, winning the Heineken Cup was a fairly simple target to set.
Objective appraisal of resources: Every dog on the street knows Leinster’s backline has been its foundation since the emergence of the Golden Generation of O’Driscoll, Horgan and D’Arcy. Where Leinster consistently failed was the pack – and the signing of Rocky Elsom, bolstering the new maturity of Bernard Jackman and the experience of returned captain Leo Cullen, was inspired. Elsom was an extraordinarily easy choice for Player of the Season, testament to the role the Wallaby behemoth has played.
Elsewhere, Leinster’s victory has been based on a true acknowledgement of the squad’s shortcomings. Dividing resources between the Magners League and Heineken Cup – alongside Ireland’s constant international struggle for Six Nations success – as they’ve done in previous years has been a destiny of disappointment. This year, Cheika made the call. Ireland were going to be big challengers with Declan Kidney at the helm, and that would destroy any momentum for February and March. The Magners League itself would mean surplus tricky away fixtures in Cardiff and Limerick, never mind nerve-wracking Heineken Cup trips to the Stoop, the Rec, Murrayfield or Twickenham. With the demands of inevitable international success, something would have to give, and the choice to sacrifice the Magners League – the attitude that of course it’s great to win, but losing to the Ospreys isn’t the end of the world – has been the key.
Intimate understanding of the competitive environment: Well, that’s a given these days. Everyone knew the Munster match would be more about emotion than performance. Everyone knew the Harlequins quarter-final would be about grinding out a result, throwing every spare body on a line in order to avoid the critical breach. Everyone knew that the final would need all-round concentration – Leicester’s fifteen-minute superiority around half-time was testament to it. But knowing what’s needed has been the bigger issue for Leinster in previous years, and figuring it out and learning how to win has been the new bit.
Effective implementation: Therein lies the crux. That’s the bit that a coach can only teach so much, and it’s arguable that Michael Cheika doesn’t know how to get the whole thing together. But were Leinster really ever going to win without the Irish national team making the breakthrough first? Success filters down. Once Brian O’Driscoll had been taught how to win on a national level, he was going to bring that down. Leinster’s victory is a planetary alignment, the gravitational slingshot they needed to just break through.
The same formulae can be applied elsewhere. Kilkenny make it their lives’ mission simply never to lose a hurling match. Tipperary or Cork might have to start their seasons muddled about whether they want to win the Munster Championship or the All-Ireland or both, and fall between two stools. Being in an easy provence makes Kilkenny’s job easier: set a target (there’s only one to set anyway) and just get on with it. Acknowledge the potential weaknesses, address them, and play to the team’s strengths. Know the rules and bend them where you can. Play the game and ignore the players.
Which brings me to the second half of the post: why Manchester United are going to win on Wednesday and why Liverpool can’t win the Premiership. The simple act of defining a season’s goal is where Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool keep falling down. Ask a cross-section of Liverpool fans at the start of a year what they’d like to win, given a choice between the Premiership and the Champions League, and they’ll universally answer with the former. Ask the management, and they’re not so sure. End the drought and be Champions of England again, or take the theoretically higher-ranking prize of being Champions of all of Europe? Decisions, decisions.
Liverpool, anyone can tell you, don’t have the universal strength to challenge on both fronts: this is why they often come close to the double, sometimes winning one trophy, but never both. Over-reliance on Torres and Gerrard, and stuttering when they’ve been absent, is symptomatic. It’s often noted that Liverpool’s home form against the likes of Stoke and Hull is what cost them the league: such form is representative of the lack of strength in depth needed to properly rotate and ensure constant progress on all fronts. Liverpool’s problem is the one Leinster have finally mastered: sacrificing the lesser for the greater gain.
Chelsea, in fairness to Liverpool, have a similar problem – they’re just lucky that Frank Lampard never gets injured. Liverpool, therefore, need to pick their target and stick to it. Putting together a squad that can challenge on multiple fronts is something that can’t be done over one summer; that’s the reason why Alex Ferguson habitually buys half a dozen anonymous youngsters every summer. So until Liverpool can reach that level, they need to spread themselves thicker and let go of some things. Liverpool have hit their best league form since they went out of Europe. Hardly a co-incidence.
United, though, have the knack at this stage. This season they’ve shown a true evolution; becoming wiser to the fact that a squad challenging for five trophies across the world cannot afford to win every game scoring four of five goals each time. One-nil victories every week do the job; United haven’t hit a scoring gear this year but that’s fine once you get the victories. Somehow, after 65 games and seven competitions, United have come to the pinnacle of the season with a first-choice eleven totally unscathed and in good form, ready for the prize – backed up by a squad strong even to the point where the fourth-choice XI can defeat a Hull side needing a victory to stay in the Premiership.
And that is why United will win on Wednesday – Barcelona are defensively leaky, particularly for set pieces, and are competitive only by creating a lethal triumvarite of Henry, Messi and Etoo. Take out any of those three – and Henry is looking shaky, especially with Iniesta not in full fitness to fill in for him – and the team quickly becomes toothless. United, strong, refreshed and happy, have little to worry about.