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Champions Cup pain fuels Leinster’s Andrew Porter in Croke Park clash
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Champions Cup pain fuels Leinster’s Andrew Porter in Croke Park clash

Leinster have not won the Champions Cup since 2018, which is the sort of fact to send those of a certain age scurrying to the record books to see if it can really be true. Turns out it can.

No doubt this awkward truth will be brandished in their changing room at Croke Park on Saturday, when Leinster’s latest tilt at the title will continue with their semi-final against Northampton. The only other time Leinster have played on Ireland’s hallowed turf was for their semi-final against Munster in 2009, a win that might be said to have launched their dynasty.

Toulouse, who host Harlequins in the other semi-final, on Sunday, have won five titles to Leinster’s four, but one of those was in 1996, the very first edition when, with the best will in the world, the competition had yet to find its mojo. Their other titles have been spread out more thinly across its history. For the past 15 seasons, Leinster have been the dominant force, appearing in seven finals, winning the first four of them.

Hence that aura of greatness that hangs round. But it is the three lost finals since 2018’s triumph that play more on the minds of those involved, particularly the one last year, when Leinster scored three tries to rattle up a 17-0 lead in the first 12 minutes in front of their adoring fans in Dublin, only for La Rochelle to overturn their lead with a winning try in the last 10.

“That definitely hurt a bit more,” says Andrew Porter, Leinster’s loosehead. “Being at home, in front of your fans, off to such a great start, but not being able to capitalise on it. La Rochelle are a great team, but it definitely stung a bit for a while after.”

Porter came off the bench in the 2018 final as a 22-year-old known for being able to squat nearly three times his considerable body weight. Since then, he has established himself as one of the world’s best props and is hardly a stranger to silverware, either with Leinster, who have won four domestic titles since then, or Ireland, with whom he was won three Six Nations championships.

Andrew Porter runs at the Leicester defence during Leinster’s Champions Cup victory in April.View image in fullscreen

But those in elite sport are niggled by the ones that get away, those Champions Cup finals, those World Cup quarter-finals. “The hype and the expectation are what made those defeats a bit harder to take, because you have so many people cheering you on, so many travelling to support you.

“It seems like we’re in a cycle of getting so close, yet so far in the last couple of years. We’re using those losses to add to our armoury – how do you leverage that hurt and use it to put in a good performance?”

Inspiration will not be hard to come by at Croke Park, where more than 80,000 are expected to fill the stadium. Porter was at that semi-final in 2009 with his dad. “I would have been about 13. It was some atmosphere.

“I’m really looking forward to Saturday. It’s hard to put into words the significance of playing in a stadium like this, steeped in culture, with such a decorated past. Hurling is our national sport, so you’re playing in a national stadium that means so much to this country and definitely to us as a team. It’s incredibly poignant just to be able to say you played at Croke Park.”

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If it is surprising that Leinster have not won the Champions Cup since 2018, it pays to remember, too, that 40 years ago the idea of Leinster playing in front of 80,000 anywhere, let alone at Croke Park, would have seemed absurd. Irish rugby has been the success story of the professional era. Porter is not old enough to remember just how far it has come, but his affinity with Leinster’s more recent past is deep.

Porter enjoys a joke at Leinster’s Rosemount training ground.View image in fullscreen

“I saw a picture not so long ago of myself as a mascot for the Leinster team,” he says. “Leo Cullen was captain at the time, so it was me holding Leo’s hand going out for the game. And now he’s my coach.

“I suppose it’s a journey Leinster have been on. We have four Heineken Cups now, so Leinster have definitely come on leaps and bounds since I first started supporting them. The only thing left to do, after five years of not winning the Champions Cup, is to put the cherry on top and go and win it.”

Source: theguardian.com