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The disappointment will linger but Leinster are strong enough to bounce back next season
PICTURE:
JUNE 05 2023
For the second year running, a season that promised so much ended in bitter disappointment for Leinster, having come up short in both respective competitions.
As the dust begins the settle on the heartache of the Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to La Rochelle, the coaches will already be thinking about how best to right the wrongs going forward, while the players take a well-earned breather before many of them turn their attention to Ireland’s World Cup tilt in France this autumn. 

For a team that only lost three games in both the Champions Cup and the United Rugby Championship (URC), it is staggering to think Leinster have not managed to win a trophy.

That’s the harsh reality facing the province because after delivering so many thrilling moments across the course of the last nine months, Leinster do not have any silverware to show for their efforts. The La Rochelle loss will particularly hurt, not least because Leo Cullen’s men had raced into a commanding 17-0 lead on the back of playing some of the best rugby you are ever likely to see.

Letting such a big advantage slip from their grasp was frustrating enough, but then when you consider Leinster did so at home in the Aviva Stadium, it makes it all the tougher to stomach.  Leinster worked so hard to pave the way for a home run to the decider, but they will be waiting a long time for the Champions Cup final to arrive in Dublin again.

It may be forgotten by some in the fall-out, but Leinster were outstanding in the opening exchanges against Ronan O’Gara’s side, who for the second year on the bounce, inflicted pain late on by snatching the first of the club’s two Champions Cups.

Dan Sheehan added to his ever-growing reputation with a sublime, two-try display. The Ireland hooker brilliantly mixes pace and power, and if there was ever an individual performance that didn’t deserve to be on the losing side, this was it. Being named the URC players’ player of the season in the days that followed won’t have come as any consolation to Sheehan but having been voted for by the league’s captains and vice-captains, it was deserved recognition for the 24-year-old’s consistent form this year.

Speaking of end-of-season awards, Caelan Doris was duly crowned Rugby Players Ireland players’ player of the year on the back of his excellent campaign. Sheehan and Doris’ deserved awards reflect their form, as well as how strong Leinster and Ireland have been this year, with the likes of Ryan Baird, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O'Brien also impressing along the way.  However, both Sheehan and Doris would certainly swap the individual accolades for team silverware. 

A much-changed Leinster team came up short in the URC semi-final to their arch-rivals Munster, which is sure to breathe life into the rivalry next season. These are interesting times for Leinster, who are about to embark on a period of transition, as Stuart Lancaster ends his tenure as senior coach, and Johnny Sexton exits the stage to focus on Ireland ahead of his retirement following the World Cup. Losing two such key figures means this could be a tricky time for the province, but with a steady hand like Cullen in charge, supporters should be optimistic about the future.

South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber will replace Lancaster after his World Cup commitments with the Springboks, and the highly rated defensive specialist will add a huge amount of nous and experience.
Leinster will be hoping that Nienaber can help shore up their defence, while Andrew Goodman steps up to take on more responsibility for the attack.

As ever, the conveyor belt of talent continues to churn out exciting young players, with out-half Sam Prendergast and back-row James Culhane among those hoping to push on next season. After already prematurely losing James Tracy and Charlie Ryan to injury-enforced retirement earlier this year, Leinster will also bid farewell to their popular winger Dave Kearney, as well as Sexton. The hurt of another trophyless season will linger for a while yet, but Cullen will be doing everything within his control to ensure that he uses it to fuel the drive for what is to come.

As much as there will be plenty of dismay at losing two Champions Cup finals in-a-row, the reality is, La Rochelle are an outstanding team who needed two late tries to beat Leinster by a single point on each occasion.

In short, Leinster are not far away from landing that elusive fifth star, as they go in search of their first URC title next season. By the time the new campaign kicks off in October, a later start than normal because of the World Cup, Leinster will remain one of the teams to beat in both the Champions Cup and the URC.
It’s a long wait for supporters to get back to the RDS to cheer on the boys in blue but spare a thought for the coaches and players who will have to stew over the disappointment.

This isn’t the way anyone envisaged Leinster’s season playing out, but now that it has, they must pick themselves up and go again in the coming months.  And when they do, you can be sure that motivation will be at an all-time high, as Leinster look to rid themselves of this season’s painful memories.