THE END OF THE SEASON is usually a time to celebrate and relax at Leinster, a club where winning silverware is more of an expectation than an ambition.
The final weeks of last season had a very different feel. For the first time since 2017, Province finished the campaign without a trophy to their name, losing to La Rochelle in the Champions Cup final before losing at home to the Bulls in the United Rugby Championship semi-final .
It was the kind of loss that takes time to digest. The type of losses that can’t be pushed to the back of the mind.
As such, while part of the Leinster squad flew out for Ireland’s summer tour of New Zealand, the rest of the group knelt for a few extra days at Leinster headquarters.
“It wouldn’t (usually) happen,” says Luke McGrath. “You knew guys can’t book a vacation that would last at least a few days. I think it was important to come and have the reviews of those games at that time, rather than leaving the summer pass and linger.
“We put some sort of statement on it. Just park it there. No “go and enjoy your vacation and come back with everyone refreshed”. It was a tough few days. Just the vibe around the place, you can only imagine. It wasn’t great at all. »
The mood at home was much brighter, with McGrath and his partner, Rebecca, welcoming a baby boy, Bobby.
“He actually arrived the day after the La Rochelle game. So it was the lowest point, then the highest point the next day.
“It’s hard to deal with the whole rugby side as well, the lack of sleep is the hardest part. He came home the day we were knocked out so the good thing is I was prepared for There was no vacation, I was pretty much trying to get used to it all and it’s going well now.
A new season awaits, with Leinster back in URC action today, taking on Zebre Parma in Italy [KO 1pm Irish time, RTÉ2, Premier Sports 1 and URC TV]. Yet even with a summer of reflection behind them, those defeats to La Rochelle and the Bulls continue to be talked about around the training ground.
We obviously referenced the games, even this week a few things. For example, last Thursday we had a bit of a little internal game of 25 minutes, 30 minutes where there were still elements of the game where we got into trouble in the Bulls game and the La Rochelle game, so it was constantly referenced on the back of those games and probably will be for a few months at least.
“You constantly have to add little things. The two games last year, the game against La Rochelle and the Bulls, our defense needs to be tightened up, so we’ve worked a lot on that, and it’s great to have Seanie O’Brien back. also. He did a lot of work around the breakdown, the defensive breakdown, as well as some elements in the tackle and defense.
O’Brien will also be looking to add more ‘point’ to Leinster’s game. The former Leinster flanker is an interesting addition to Leo Cullen’s coaching staff, forming a different type of relationship with the players he previously called his teammates.
“It’s very different,” says McGrath.
“He also has a whistle at the first gates, so he whistled like crazy the first few weeks. It’s good. It’s such a great voice to have anywhere. I was lucky enough to have him in the place for a few years and he’s freshened the place up a bit and he lets the guys know when they’re doing something wrong which is great.
“I thought he would change a bit more, but he’s still in the players’ dressing room. His last game here was, what, a few years ago, so he’s kind of between the manager-player relationship. He’s been brilliant for us.
There are some new faces on the pitch too, with center Charlie Ngatai and second row Jason Jenkins both set to make their Leinster debuts today. Fullback Max O’Reilly [nine caps] and winger Rob Russell [five caps] will also be eager to attract attention.
These are the games Leinster should win at a gallop, even taking into account the cobwebs at the start of the season. The Italian side lost 17 of their 18 URC outings last season but have undergone a radical squad overhaul over the summer months. Four of their starting squad make their Zebres debut – fullback Richard Kriel, halfback Tiff Eden, hooker Jacques Du Toit and flanker MJ Pelser – with two additional newcomers on the bench.
“There’s probably more pressure (on us) from just being the first game of the season,” McGrath added.
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“Everyone knows there will probably be a few mistakes. Obviously there are going to be a few mistakes in the first game of the season so we are just trying to improve… We played against Harlequins a few weeks ago at barely, made a few mistakes and we’re trying to fix them this week and just be ready for a good shot against Zebre.
PARMA ZEBRA: Richard Kriel; Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronjé, Enrico Lucchin, Simone Gesi; Tiff Eden, Chris Cook; Paolo Buonfiglio, Jacques Du Toit, Matteo Nocera; David Sisi (captain), Leonard Krumov; Luca Andreani, MJ Pelser, Taina Fox-Matamua.
Substitutes: Luca Bigi, Juan Pitinari, Muhamed Hasa, Joshua Furno, Guido Volpi, Alessandro Fusco, Franco Smith Jr, Jacopo Trulla.
LEINSTER: Max O’Reilly; Rob Russell, Jamie Osborne, Charlie Ngatai, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Ed Byrne, Ronan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins; Rhys Ruddock (captain), Scott Penny, Max Deegan.
Substitutes: John McKee, Michael Milne, Vakhtang Abdaladze, Brian Deeny, Alex Soroka, Nick McCarthy, Ciarán Frawley, Will Connors.
Arbitrator: Ben Blain [SRU].
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