Brent Pope: 'Leinster's huge self-belief puts them a level above most teams in Europe at the moment'

All the great sports teams seem to possess it, a self-belief, and an ability to always see the winning picture, no matter how overwhelming the odds may be.

This type of self-belief has not always sat comfortably with Irish sporting psyche, in fact a lot of the time Irish teams preferred to be tagged as underdogs, to save being thought of as arrogant or in any way getting above their station.

A few years ago in 2016, the Irish rugby team led the All Blacks in the Aviva Stadium with time virtually up on the clock. Inspirational All Black captain Ritchie McCaw gathered his New Zealand players around him when they had a momentary break, he pleaded to his players: “These Irish guys will give us one more opportunity in this game, you must be ready to take it”.

Of course that’s exactly what happened, All Black replacement Ryan Grotty scoring a try in injury-time to deny Ireland a historical win at the time.

That game has long been forgotten by the public, especially in the aftermath of the wins against New Zealand in Chicago and more recently in the Aviva, but the lessons learnt that day by the Irish coach Joe Schmidt was clear.

After that loss Schmidt trained his players especially hard at the end of every training session, teaching them that rugby can as much be about mental toughness as it is physical conditioning.

Schmidt changed the players’ mindset, so that if they were ever in that situation again they would not lose.

Roll on the clock to last season’s Six Nations opener against France in Paris, this time Ireland looked destined to lose. But instead of panicking as they had done against the All Blacks, Ireland moved up the field with such skill and composure that it looked as if it was all pre-planned, in many ways it was.

It was those last few minutes at Schmidt’s sessions where players dared not make a mistake.

Each player took on the responsibility of not being the one that would turn the ball over, and every precious inch was taken, the Irish team kept the winning picture, they knew if they could put their outhalf Johnny Sexton into field position then he would deliver.

Sexton also knew that he made this very same kick a 1,000 times in training, this was no different, and it was all about a superior self-belief.

For most of last weekend’s derby match in the RDS Leinster were the lesser of the two sides, Connacht came to play and heading into the concluding quarter were cruising. But someone just forgot to tell Leinster.

Most teams play in segments of time, where they review what is happening on the field i.e. “we need to score next”, or “we cannot concede any points”.

There are regular calls to action so that players can stay focused for long periods of the match.

It’s different for different teams of course, and last weekend Leinster were up against the clock, but that did not matter if they just kept that winning belief.

In retrospect Connacht would have presumed with a cushion of 17 points, and as many minutes to play, that even if Leinster did manage to score  a try, then they would have to score another couple to win.

Maybe as a result Connacht became complacent. Who knows but the momentum shift was huge as Leinster grew in confidence whilst Connacht started to go back into their shells.

This is when Connacht should have gone back to time-segment play, to do something to halt Leinster’s comeback.

But it was too late, Leinster were in full attack mode and the men from the west were now just clinging onto a lead.  Exactly as Ireland had done in Paris last year, Leinster managed to hold onto possession for over 40 phases without a single mistake – that shows huge self-belief.

In fact Leinster could have settled for a draw had they elected to take three kickable points, but their captain Rhys Ruddock had complete faith in his team’s ability to win, and he was rewarded when burly Leinster prop Andrew Porter bullocked his way over to deny Connacht a long overdue win in the RDS.

It was an incredible comeback, but one that most seasoned Leinster players never doubted they could pull off.

Leinster are on a level above most teams in Europe at the moment, with a rare combination of a conveyor belt of talent and mental toughness.

Tomorrow Munster (Thomond Park, 5.15) are desperate to knock the wind out of Leinster’s sails, but I get the sense that Leo Cullen’s men see the bigger picture, they want back-to-back silverware.

Both teams will field particularly strong, with Munster in particular needing a big scalp, but it’s hard to bet against Leinster these days.

It will be a typical arm wrestle as it is every year between these two rivals, but it’s Leinster to dominate up front and take victory.

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