On the day that Pep Guardiola resigned as Barcelona’s most successful coach of all time, the end of an era at the Nou Camp offered a timely reminder that eventually, one way or another, each and every sporting dynasty will come to a close. Before their semi-final with Chelsea this week, Barça were a team who had captured two European cups within three years, gunning for a third title in four. The similarity with Leinster is uncanny.
Perhaps there is no greater compliment to pay to Leinster than comparing them to Barcelona (though no doubt their fans would argue it should be the other way around). Over the past four seasons, their dominance in Europe has simply been outstanding. The peak of their powers was demonstrated best when they hosted Bath earlier this season. Playing with a fluidity and freedom that made a mockery of their opponent’s ability, with Johnny Sexton conjuring magical passes and tactical kicks, Leinster were truly mesmerising.
In the first half of their quarter-final three weeks ago against Cardiff, they arguably even surpassed their Bath performance. The Leinster of 2011-2012 are undoubtedly stronger than when they won their first title back in 2009, when inspired by Rocky Elsom at his peak they ground out the win against Leicester Tigers at Murrayfield. Although defeat followed in the 2010 semi-final against Toulouse, the character showed in last year’s final against Northampton was remarkable, in arguably the greatest Heineken comeback of all time from 22-6 down to win 22-33.
That 2011 final confirmed that this Leinster side are something truly special. When you’re performing in the manner they have on a weekly basis, you are going to attract the best names in the world, hence why the recruitment of Brad Thorn on a short-term deal came as no surprise. At 37, the assumption would be that Thorn would be winding down. Instead, what Leinster have recruited is one of the game’s all-time great enforcers. His medal collection, in both codes, elevates him to the realms of legends. If he continues to make a big impact, then he will soon be talked about in the same manner as Rocky.
Of course the recruitment of Thorn came about due to the loss another favourite Dublin son – Nathan Hines. Departing Leinster at the end of last season as a result of the new IRFU legislation regarding foreign players, his exit was bemoaned by the club and the player himself after a successful stay. Now, Hines will line up alongside the menacing Jamie Cudmore to take down his old friends this weekend in Bordeaux, part of a Clermont side hungry for a first European title.
Having fallen in Toulouse at this stage two years ago, there will be a slight snag at the back of Leinster’s minds all week. By winning in the baying pit of Bordeaux, they will confirm their status as favourites in the final. They are blessed in having the form full back in Europe in Rob Kearney (who would be the best in the world if it were not for Israel Dagg), plus a consistent set-piece, remarkable breakdown unit and the knowledgable boot of Sexton. That’s all before considering the grace and class of Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa. They are truly a complete side seemingly at its peak. Now, Leinster must succeed where Barcelona have failed.
by Ben Coles