One of the of the big positives that will be taken from this years Heineken Champions Cup is the seeming resurgence of Toulouse. Despite a semi-final exit, the four-time kings of Europe have won many hearts this season with their free-flowing attacking style executed by their fearless home-grown youth. In an age where the size of a team’s bank balance is key to success, it is reassuring to see the so many academy products bearing fruit.
However many plaudits Toulouse deserve, it is surely their semi-final opponents, Leinster, that deserve more. Operating on a budget of approximately €15M, the defending European Champions wouldn’t feature on a list of the top 6 or 7 turnovers in the Gallagher Premiership. Yet, almost inexplicably, they find themselves in the showpiece final going for an unprecedented 5th title, which would be a double-double to boot. This level of European and domestic success is heavily based on their pool of home-grown talent, their total of four overseas players is by far the lowest across the three main European leagues and it is clearly working. Last year, 16 of the 23 players named in their Champions Cup final squad were products of their academy. To that end, a man barely known outside of Dublin, needs to be congratulated – Peter Smyth, the Leinster academy director has done a sterling job. In a country, where Rugby Union isn’t the most popular sport and a province with only 70 clubs (less than Surrey) he has shaped one of if not the greatest team on the planet. The carrot of playing for the national team surely helps with player retention, but the unique culture bread in Irelands capital province along with the sense of pride and belonging make it feel like a by-gone age existing in a modern era. It is no secret how well the Leinster players are managed in relation to some of their rivals (another reason to hang around perhaps?), but their ability to expose players to high level competition and turn up the pressure on established players is continually fuelling the cycle – Leinster’s youth coming through and taking over before being replaced themselves really is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Leinster will face Saracens in the final on the 11th of May – the North London club have no shortage of homegrown talent of their own, but they are undoubtedly doing so on a far superior budget to the Dubliners. Regardless, this should be a fascinating final and is a match-up that many will be looking forward to seeing play out. The number of Ireland and England players going head-to-head will be another intriguing sub-plot in identifying who will sit atop the European tree in 2019.
Written by James Jones