Belfast Telegraph

Leinster are turning their other home into a fortress

 

Winning feeling: Leinster celebrate their PRO14 final win over Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in May
Winning feeling: Leinster celebrate their PRO14 final win over Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in May

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

You can usually measure the success of a Leinster season by the number of visits they make across Dublin 4 to Lansdowne Road.

The Aviva Stadium has come to be the province's second home, and a good one it has been too.

Last season, they played five times at the venue and in total have played 25 matches since the old ground was knocked down and redeveloped. They've won 21 of them.

Currently, they are on a nine-game winning streak that stretches back to their 20-16 defeat to Toulon in the pre-Christmas game in 2015.

Tomorrow, they welcome Bath to the 51,700-capacity arena for the third time and more than 40,000 fans will expect the home side to keep up their 100% record against the Premiership team.

They pay a flat rate to rent the stadium, but with the combined attendance of 138,138 they welcomed through the gates for their three home games at the Aviva last season, there was a considerable profit. Their two meetings with Scarlets were hosted by EPCR and the Guinness PRO14.

Leinster were quick to identify the promise of the stadium when it was constructed and pencil in two fixtures a year for the larger-capacity venue; their pre-Christmas back-to-back game and their home match against Munster.

The redeveloped RDS will be Leinster's home for the long-term, but their capacity to make a killing up the road is a real string to their commercial bow.

Ahead of the first game at the stadium in 2010, Leinster CEO Mick Dawson outlined his vision for the fixtures and said he hoped the province would be able to fill it on a regular basis.

They have not quite managed it every time, but have only dipped below 40,000 twice in 25 attempts, which is an impressive record.

They have toyed with the idea of moving the Ulster game across Ballsbridge, but have ultimately settled on the current model and it works well.

Munster's annual autumn visit is a fixture on the sporting calendar, while the pre-Christmas scheduling of their European home game has an appeal to floating fans as well as their regulars, and the European knockouts look after themselves.

Off the pitch, the whole thing makes sense, but it needs on-pitch buy-in to function and the players have responded with relish.

Garry Ringrose said of the experience: "It's always amazing when you go out and it's 50,000 people at a club game. It is hard to find anywhere else in the world.

"It's amazing to be part of days like that, in terms of the atmosphere it does sometimes make a huge difference in the RDS or the Aviva when we feel like we have that 16th man on the pitch."

The novelty may have worn off for the large Irish contingent in the Leinster set-up, but there is no doubting they have enjoyed their home games.

Clermont were the first visiting team to visit the Aviva in December 2010 and since then 13 teams have followed them.

The French side are one of the few teams to have beaten Leinster at Lansdowne Road, with Munster, Northampton Saints and Toulon being the others.

Dawson said before that first game eight years ago: "At the moment it wouldn't be our intention to play any more games in the Aviva. We think two is about right and the reason is that we want to fill it out on both occasions.

"It is very important from a player's perspective that we get it full and that it has the right atmosphere in the place. The RDS is still our home and we are committed to them long-term.

"There is a rent for the stadium, you pay for all the security; hopefully it will attract 50,000 people and it will be a commercial success for us. You want to be able to go into the market and attract top-quality overseas players, so you need a strong balance sheet."

At the time of that move, Leinster had won one Heineken Cup and one Magners League. Now, their trophy cabinet is bulging at the seams.

They would use that win over Clermont to propel themselves to a second European title, winning their quarter-final and semi-final against Leicester Tigers and Toulouse at Lansdowne Road.

The additional income from their biggest gates has helped recruit the likes of Scott Fardy and James Lowe and retain the top talent that has come through their burgeoning academy.

There are many other factors, but the regular trips across Ballsbridge offer a significant fillip.

Opposition coaches often refer to Leinster as being pretty much the Irish team, and when they are in full flight at Ireland's home ground they have proven to be very, very hard to beat. It's a potent combination.

Meanwhile, CJ Stander remembers enough of the bad days to understand the importance of appreciating a comfortable home win in Europe, especially when it is against the current French champions.

Having got rid of some early-season dirty petrol, Stander recaptured his best form in the win over the All Blacks last month before making a try-scoring return for Munster last weekend.

In France tomorrow, the 28-year-old will be central to Munster's game plan, particularly as he looks to get his side over the gain line against a Castres pack that will be gunning for revenge.

Johann van Graan will hope that his side don't live to regret not picking up a bonus point come next month as Munster firstly look to get out of the pool and secondly seek a home quarter-final.

There is still a lot of work to be done and, while they will have frustrations, as Stander aptly puts it; you get what you deserve.

"A few years ago we couldn't even win home games in Europe so to get a home win in Europe is massive," the No.8 insists. "A bonus is a bonus, you get it when it's there but to win was great.

"The first half was kind of a weird game but it was physical and demanding, and I think second half we came out and fixed a few things and got a few tries, so that was good to get as well."

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