Leinster’s win over Leicester at the weekend won them the Heineken Cup for the first time, and epitomised the change of character for Irish teams this season.
With Leinster having been crowned European Champions, fresh from Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam victory, this season could be a watershed moment in Irish rugby history with any internal issues or psychological frailties banished for ever.
The manner in which Leinster overturned a 16-9 deficit against Leicester – the pre-match favourites – demonstrated the new belief running through Irish blood. How many times in the past have we seen an Irish side capitulate when the tide has turned against them? On Saturday, they clawed their way back into the game, defended heroically and then took their chances when they came.
Potentially even more impressive was their emphatic semi-final triumph over Munster, when nobody had given them a chance, but the Dublin side knew they had a chance and they took it in style.
It could be argued that Munster has always been strong in Europe, and because they are also Irish, Leinster’s victory is not quite as meaningful. Until that semi-final defeat, Munster had previously led the way as Kings of Europe, but their form in the red jersey was not transposed when they donned the green of the country. It has been said that when Declan Kidney took over, there was a frank discussion amongst players and staff in which the Leinster players accused the Munster players of not playing with the same passion for Ireland as they do for Munster – and the Munstermen admitted their guilt.
It appears these tensions have been ironed out at both provincial and international level, Leinster and Ireland are no longer the ‘nearly-men’ and it bodes well for the future of Irish rugby in the long term, and for the Lions in the short term.
Brian O’Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald stood out on Saturday, alongside Rocky Elsom, both of whom were part of the Grand Slam-winning team, and both of whom are now in South Africa with the British and Irish Lions. Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have also tasted glory for club and country this season, and will be desperate to add a Lions triumph to their honours.
The Irish self-belief now looks firmly entrenched, contrary to some people’s opinions that it could not last, and this is great news for the Lions – Ireland boasts the largest contribution to the squad, and many will feature in the Test team.
The Lions will be huge underdogs, but they’ll believe they can win, and on this evidence, they might just do it.