By Brendan O’Brien
Rob Kearney has warned that the English challenge in this year’s European Cup should not be taken lightly.
The Premiership’s representatives endured a difficult campaign in the Champions Cup last time around. Only Saracens made it beyond the pool stages and the Anglo sides came close to losing two games for every one they played against opponents from neighbouring countries.
Leinster, Munster, and Ulster faced English opponents nine times. All but Ulster’s visit to Harlequins ended in victories. Stats like that fed into the narrative that the challenge from across the Irish Sea had been compromised by the British and Irish Lions tour the previous summer.
It was a theory that was stitched into large parts of the season as a whole in Europe, including a Six Nations campaign in which Ireland again held the upper hand on England, with many claiming that the Irish players were simply rested more than their English counterparts.
The balance of power between the rival nations will be tested again this weekend with the three same provinces meeting English opposition — Wasps, Exeter Chiefs, and Leicester Tigers — in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Wasps coach Dai Young admits a visit to Dublin is a frightening prospect and only hopes the holders can be caught cold at the start of their European campaign.
Asked if Leo Cullen’s side look any more vulnerable this time around, he replied: “No, they don’t, to be honest with you.
“They’re a pretty formidable team — and not only a formidable team, a formidable squad. They have got some frightening strength in depth and some really exciting youngsters as well, and they’ve obviously got big-match experience with all the internationals they’ve got.
“They are obviously a frightening team, but hopefully we can catch them cold. We have got confidence in how we play the game.
“We’re respectful enough to know that we are going to have to be at our best, without a shadow of a doubt, and we’re not playing at our best at the minute, so there’s lots of improvement in the game.”
Kearney, meanwhile, has seen trends come and go and reappear over the horizon. His European debut was a surprise home loss to Bath in Dublin and the Heineken Cup was approaching the back end of a period that would see England claim five titles in eight attempts.
“It’s hard to say but you write off English teams at your peril a little bit,” said the Leinster full-back. “That’s probably sometimes when they’re at their strongest. Certainly the Irish guys coming back after Lions tour, we do get managed well.
Pre-tournament odds back that up. Saracens and Exeter Chiefs are second and third favourites to take the honours next May at Newcastle’s St James’ Park but Leinster are by common consent the side to beat again this time around.
Claim the title again and they will continue a recent trend of sides retaining the trophy. Saracens did a back to back and Toulon managed a three in a row. For his part, Kearney was part of a Leinster side that failed to back up a European title, in 2010, and one that did, in 2012.
So, what’s the secret?
“Listen, it’s difficult. As a playing group you try and change your mindset a little bit. As of tomorrow night, we’re just one other team trying to get the trophy. You saw at the European media launch, Johnny (Sexton) carried the trophy in and he put it back down on the stand.
“For me, that was a bit of a telling moment, that he was giving it back and it was all to play for again. So certainly within the playing group, that is the type of attitude we are trying to incorporate into this season, that we’re just one of the teams going chasing it again.”
The accepted wisdom is that successful sides need to inject new blood into the ranks if momentum is to be maintained and progress made. Leinster will present a challenge to that belief with Joe Tomane the only new addition to the matchday squad. He starts on the bench tonight.
The arrival of former Leinster out-half Felipe Contepomi as backs coach has actually been the main tweak to the operation that claimed a European and league double last season. Early indications are theArgentinian’s ideas are finding receptive ears.
“Felipe has slotted right back in,” said Kearney. “In many ways it’s as if he had never left. He has a lot of experience around different parts of the world, in New Zealand, Australia. He obviously did a lot of coaching in Argentina so he has brought that wealth of experience with him.
“What I like most about Felipe in the last few months is that he is just getting us to do the basics really, really well. Particularly when we are in those wider channels. He is getting us to play with a little bit more width and trying to convert more opportunities when we have made some space.”