Leinster face similar problem to the All Blacks – handling pressure to win when it matters most

La Rochelle's players celebrate winning the 2022 Champions Cup final
Leinster have lost the last two Champions Cup finals - AFP/Pascal Guyot

It was during one of the most entertaining press conferences given by Eddie Jones during his tenure as England head coach that the Australian laid bare the impact that pressure can have on even the greatest sides.

In the build-up to England’s famous semi-final victory over New Zealand during the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Jones attempted to ramp up the pressure on their opponents, the defending champions, by emphasising the detrimental impact it had on previous All Blacks sides.

“No-one thinks we can win,” said Jones of his England side. “New Zealand talk about walking towards pressure – well, this week the pressure is going to be chasing them down the street.

“The busiest bloke in Tokyo this week will be Gilbert Enoka, their mental skills coach. They have to deal with all this pressure of winning the World Cup three times. It is potentially the last game for their greatest coach and their greatest captain and they will be thinking about those things.

“Those thoughts go through your head. It is always harder to defend a World Cup, and they will be thinking about that, and therefore there is pressure.”

The volley was, of course, mind games deployed by Jones to take away the spotlight on his own team but there was more than an element of truth to his comments. The All Blacks had been previously dogged by the pressure of successive failed attempts to win the World Cup after their inaugural triumph in 1987 until their angst-ridden victory in the 2011 final at Eden Park.

Leinster find themselves in a similar predicament ahead of this Saturday’s Investec Champions Cup final against Toulouse at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The so far elusive quest to add a ‘fifth star’ to their illustrious Champions Cup history has become a story in itself. Leinster may be rightly regarded as one of the best European sides for over a decade, but you have to go back to 2018 for Leo Cullen’s side’s last title.

Leinster celebrate winning the Champions Cup in 2018
Leinster's last Champions Cup triumph was back in 2018 - Reuters/Vincent West

Since then, the Irish province have lost out in the 2019, 2022 and 2023 finals, the last two by a combined total of just four points, both against La Rochelle. With each narrow failure has come more pascals of pressure and feeling that the burden of equalling Toulouse’s record of five titles has made it less, rather than more likely.

That sentiment reached a peak in last year’s final when despite the advantage of playing at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and flying out of the blocks to establish a 17-point lead, they would succumb to Ronan O’Gara’s side in the final 10 minutes and suffer a 27-26 defeat.

That pattern almost repeated itself in the semi-final against Northampton Saints at Croke Park in Dublin, when Leinster raced into commanding 17-point lead early in the second half, only to find themselves hanging on at the death for a nervy 20-17 victory.

Given that Leinster provides the lion’s share of the Ireland side that has won back-to-back Six Nations titles, the financial firepower to match the big-spending French sides and a world-class, high-performance development pathway, the spotlight has shifted from them consistently reaching the deep end of the competition, to their failure to take the final step.

As Jones might say, pressure will be chasing them down the High Road in Tottenham on Saturday. The question now is whether Leinster can instead lean into it.

‘We’ve learned some pretty harsh lessons’

The appointment of Jacques Nienaber, who coached South Africa to their last two World Cup triumphs, will at least bring a hard-edged experience of what it takes to edge knock-out matches. But the answer has to come from the players, who must embrace the pressure, not be consumed by it. Critical to this is resisting the temptation of a blitzkrieg opening that is not sustainable for 80 minutes.

“We have obviously learned some pretty harsh lessons over the last few seasons,” admitted Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne.

“A big thing in the last two finals is how close they have been. Even the semi-final against Northampton, it came down to the last play, and a lot of the games we have had this season and in recent seasons have come down to that. So, it is the importance of taking your chances and doing the simple things well.

“I don’t think it’s any secret how much it hurt everybody over the last two seasons and how much it means to us. So yes, it wasn’t easy.

“I know this is our third final in a row but these weeks are few and far between, you don’t know how many you’re going to get in your career.

“So, it’s being able to enjoy it, particularly with the squad we have at the moment. It isn’t going to be the same next season and there are coaches moving on as well, so it’s important that we do enjoy it and hopefully we can deliver a performance that we’re happy with on Saturday.”