SEAN CRONIN LAST week admitted his surprise omission from Irelandâs November international squad has turned him into a better player, and he again backed that statement up with a performance of unquestionable value on Saturday.
The lowest point can so often be the turning of the tide and for Cronin, the shock of being told by Joe Schmidt that his form wasnât quite good enough was the kick up the backside he required. It has been some response.
Not only did the Leinster hooker put his early season woes behind him to produce big performances in big games for his province, but so impressive was his form that he was thrust straight back into Schmidtâs plans for the Six Nations.
Cronin provided huge impact off the bench during the Grand Slam-winning campaign and his season of ups and downs reached new heights on Saturday as he helped Leinster to a fourth Champions Cup in Bilbao, beating Racing 92 15-12.
The 31-year-old was at his typically combative best as he defied the greasy conditions and threat of Racingâs lineout unit to ensure the Leinster set-piece functioned well, while also making nine key tackles and carrying powerfully, particularly early in the piece and then when the game loosened out.
A second European Cup medal for the Limerick native, and a particularly sweet moment shared with his wife Claire.
âI suppose like I said earlier on in the week when I did some interviews, you have those ups and downs and it is about how you react to them,â he said afterwards.
âThen, when you get your rewards like this, it makes it a bit sweeter that you know if you can do it, try and get back and donât sulk, work hard itâs a good reward for it. What we had today was unbelievable.
âWe struggled to get a bit of tempo into the game like we had all season, they went very hard at the breakdown which we knew they would do. We had identified that, but we struggled a small bit there to try and get as quick ball as weâd been getting all year.
âThat was our game, to play tempo, and the game was slowed down constantly. We adapted well towards the end and got into the right positions. We got fortunate that we got that penalty and that was the difference.â
In lifting the Champions Cup for a fourth time, Leinster moved level with Toulouse for the amount of competition wins and Cronin added that there were times over the last six years when he wondered if the province would ever return to the summit of European rugby.
âYeah, stuff like that goes through your head,â he continued. âItâs six years since Iâve been in a final and, God, I mightnât be around in six yearsâ time again. That sort of stuff goes through your mind during the week and youâre just hoping you put in a performance on the day.
âLast year we lost in the semi-final, but to get into the final and the pressure that comes from that â it was about adapting to that. The big thing for us was not to change anything. I saw Leo and Stuart saying that we werenât going to change anything, which we didnât during the week.
âWe wanted to keep what had been producing into todayâs game. It was a funny game like that, but we adapted to it as the 80 minutes went on.
âI just think everyone is relieved and delighted that we got over the line, it would have been very unfortunate if we lost, especially considering some of the performances we put in during the campaign, it would be have been a big killer for us.â
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