Cian Tracey: 'History beckons as Leinster aim for record 16th win in a row this season'
A trip to Treviso for an early kick-off isn’t something that generally sets the pulses of players or supporters racing, but there is a lot more riding on Leinster’s meeting with Benetton on Saturday than a quick glance would suggest.
First and foremost, a win of any description would mean that Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final, as well as a potential semi-final, will be held in Dublin.
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That alone is enough motivation to ensure that Leo Cullen’s men don’t slip up against a team who they have often struggled against recently.
Then, when you consider that Leinster will create history by winning in Italy, the players really don’t need more reasons to be fully switched on.
The last time the club found themselves in this position, having racked up 15 straight wins since the start of the season, they set a new record.
Since that 2001/’02 campaign, only Ulster have come close to equalling it in the PRO14, when they opened with a run of 11 consecutive victories in 2012/’13.
Across the pond, Newcastle hold the Premiership record when they began the 1997/’98 season with 12 wins in a row, which gives a good idea of just how rare an achievement it is to hit 15. No other team in the professional era of one of Europe’s top leagues has managed to do so, and while that is all well and good, Leinster can break their own record by beating Benetton.
The players and coaches will brush off the idea that creating that kind of history will even come into their thinking, but, deep down, it will be impossible to completely ignore it.
Yesterday marked the 18-year anniversary of Toulouse brutally crushing Leinster’s perfect season on a day when the province travelled to the south of France with Brian O’Driscoll drafted in as an emergency out-half.
It had ‘banana skin’ written all over it, even after Leinster had handed Toulouse a 40-10 thrashing earlier in the tournament, and so it proved as the French side exacted sweet revenge with a 43-7 drubbing.
As it transpired, the defeat had drastic consequences for Leinster who were left facing a daunting trip to Welford Road to take on defending champions Leicester.
They ultimately fell short as despite having won all five of their pool games up to that point, Leinster dropped to fifth seeds and paid a heavy price as their search for a first Heineken Cup went on.
Leo Cullen won’t need to hark to those dark days, particularly because Benetton don’t pose the same threat that Toulouse did all those years ago.
It will take a major upset for Leinster not to break their own record with a 16th victory, but it is fanciful to think that they will go through the entire campaign without losing.
As Stuart Lancaster alluded to last week, no club team ever sits down at the start of the season and sets out a bold target of going unbeaten.
In an ideal world, it would be great, but there is plenty of road left to run before that could become a reality.
Leinster’s squad will be decimated after this weekend as the international players head off for the Six Nations until they return for the Champions Cup quarter-final on the first weekend of April. The reality of the club’s success means that they will lose many of their key men, yet it is worth remembering that the majority of those players were at the World Cup when the younger brigade set this run in motion.
Regardless of age or experience, no player will want to be part of that first team to lose and although it is unlikely to happen in Italy, Cullen will already be mindful of the many challenges that are just around the corner during the Six Nations.
The net result of Leinster’s outstanding form is that they risk arriving at the business end of the season being undercooked.
As was the case in Europe, their PRO14 home knockout game will be wrapped up early doors, which could in theory make them vulnerable against teams who are in much more need of the points. Such is the level that the club is currently operating at, however, it’s difficult to see those high standards dropping.
Collecting 11 out of a possible 15 bonus points (one more than the class of 2002 managed) sums up just how dominant Cullen’s men have been.
Leinster may not have set out to go through an entire season unbeaten, but now that they find themselves in this remarkable situation, they will have their sights on setting a new record with a 16th consecutive win and beyond.
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