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Ruaidhri O'Connor

It's hard to see anybody but Leinster winning the PRO14 for a long time to come

Ruaidhri O'Connor


 

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Blocked:Ulster’s Billy Burns is tackled by Leinster’s Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose

Blocked:Ulster’s Billy Burns is tackled by Leinster’s Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Blocked:Ulster’s Billy Burns is tackled by Leinster’s Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose

You wondered what they made of it all, the lost sons of Leinster who trooped on to the field dressed all in white to contest a final that was already over after Robbie Henshaw's intercept try.

Most of them were once part of the winning machine and have the medals to prove it. They departed for different reasons and ended up at Ulster where on Saturday they found themselves flattened by a familiar juggernaut.

You can leave Leinster, but there's no getting away from them. Their dominance right now is all-encompassing.

After an hour had elapsed on Saturday, Leo Cullen gave Johnny Sexton the nod to take his tracksuit off to navigate a 20-minute lap of honour before the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens.

Once the final whistle had gone, the absence of any alickadoos meant Sexton and Garry Ringrose handed the medals to their teammates before two departing heroes of the last decade, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden, stepped up in their tracksuits to lift the Guinness PRO14 trophy.

They are honouring a tradition that has existed throughout Leinster's unprecedented era of success, but where once the senior men would be central figures right up to the end, increasingly their final act is a ceremonial one due to the impatience of the next generation.

Such is the relentless way of it at a province that has turned this league into a procession and has unbalanced Irish rugby for at least a generation.

Each of the 53 individuals involved in their triumph has a story to tell and their work within the system should not be forgotten.

However, collectively, the machine looks utterly unstoppable right now regardless of who is wearing the jersey and it is difficult to imagine anyone else winning this tournament for a long time to come.

Perhaps the introduction of the top four South African regions will add the competition the PRO14 so sorely lacks, maybe Munster, Ulster, the Scarlets, Edinburgh or Glasgow can up their game but it seems a stretch.

This unprecedented three-in-a-row, an unbeaten run in the league that stretches back 507 days and a level of dominance that looks utterly unhealthy from every angle except the Leinster perspective, must surely be setting alarm bells ringing somewhere in the corridors of power.

Statistician Stuart Farmer confirmed yesterday that Leo Cullen's team's 25-match winning run has already blown Saracens' previous pro era record of 19 on the trot out of the water.

We have never seen anything like these levels of dominance.

The chasing pack must be utterly demoralised. Ulster turned up. They threw the first punch and landed it beautifully, but Leinster have an iron chin.

Billy Burns failed to convert James Hume's superb early try and his side wouldn't score again for 76 minutes despite having the majority of possession and territory.

In his first final, Caelan Doris was a dominant figure. Ringrose was superb. Josh van der Flier played like a man who knew even his best might not be enough to get the start next week. Andrew Porter did everything he could to stave off the challenge of a returning Tadhg Furlong.

A week earlier, Leinster held Munster scoreless for 75. The Reds remain their closest competitors on paper, coming within seven points of them twice all year - a feat only two other teams managed. Only one team, Ulster, scored four tries in one game against the champions and on that day Leinster scored eight.

Outside of the top team, this is a competitive league but there are players who will go down as club legends at Ulster and Munster who may never get a gold medal because their top-level career coincided with this period of dominance.

On Saturday, they step up in class to face Saracens who were the last team to beat them in the European final of May 2019 in Newcastle.

If they beat the weakened champions, they'll take on another heavy-hitter in Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92. Both quarter-final and semi-final will be in Dublin.

Only after that might they go on the road, but even still it will take something special to stop them winning a second double in three years.

After the game, we asked Leo Cullen to explain his team's dominance.

"I think a lot of the quality work from the backroom team is a big piece," he said, name-checking Guy Easterby, the medical staff and their "exceptional" strength and conditioning lead Charlie Higgins.

"The players are obviously a very, very competitive group, they want to represent Leinster and they want to go on and represent Ireland, if they're qualified, they're ambitious.

"There are times when selection has been very, very tough and this period has been tough for a number of guys who would feel that maybe they haven't got a full crack at it and they're probably right.

"But, they've got to park that and do what's best for the team and prepare the team well… That's the whole kind of mantra, we can't rely on one person. The next person has to be able to step in."

Behind the collective might lies a plethora of individual stories and to hone in completely on the group excellence at the expense of the players' contribution would be a mistake.

Each of them earned his medal, but as they half-heartedly celebrated in an empty stadium there was a sense that it had all been too easy.

Europe will test them in the next fortnight, but their dominance in this tournament and this island remains absolute.

Belfast Telegraph