As the end of the decade approaches it is a prime moment to look back and reflect on a scintillating 10 years of rugby. Years of quality football from both hemispheres, where a singular Team of the Decade conversation is a recognition of the sport, and of the game.
Our senior writers and management have selected the Last Word on Rugby Team of the Decade from a competitive pool of club teams from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. A real challenge that was considerate of prizes won, consistency and of credentials.
Congratulations go to Leinster, who have seen off some worthy contenders to take out the formidable title that will be saluted by fans north and south of the rugby-Equator.
Last Word on Rugby Team of the Decade: Leinster
Credentials: Four League titles, three European Cups, one European Challenge Cup
At the latter end of the 2000’s Leinster had started to break out of Munster’s shadow, claiming their first European Cup title in 2009. But it was the current decade where they have asserted themselves as a World Class and successful team.
Perhaps the tipping point was the 2011 Heineken Cup final against Northampton Saints. Trailing 22-6 at half time, the men in blue blitzed the second half to win 33-22 in Cardiff.
This winning Leinster team included, as it often does, the core of the Ireland national side. But this team was a blend of the ‘old guard’ such as Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Leo Cullen alongside the next generation. Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy were establishing themselves as key members of the club by then but, had yet to play in a World Cup at this point.
This mix of playing figures was probably a factor in Leinster becoming only the second team to retain the European title in 2012, as names like Rob Kearney and Sean Cronin played their parts in the final win over Ulster.
Bouncing back stronger – the Schmidt/Cullen era
These successes in the early part of the decade raised standards enormously at the province. The European success was overseen by head coach Joe Schmidt, who of course went on to take the Ireland national job. Leinster won 77 of their 99 games under him, raising their win percentage statistics significantly.
Schmidt as succeeded by Matt O’Connor, who oversaw a second Pro14 title in two years in 2014. However, in the next couple of years, the trophies dried up. The Dubliners missed out on the domestic play-offs by finishing fifth in the league table. They were still able to make the Champions Cup semi-final and only lost to eventual winners Toulon.
Fifth place and European semi-finals would be considered an excellent return for most, but it signaled the end for O’Connor. A real sign of the standards expected at a high-performing team.
Recently retired captain Leo Cullen was handed the reigns having been forwards coach in 2014. A Leinsterman through and through, aside from a short stint at Leicester Tigers, Cullen proved to be a good choice to reach the required standards.
By this point stars like O’Driscoll had retired, and the Irish national team had suffered another disappointing World Cup campaign. Yet, for many Celtic rugby fans, the continued success of Leinster impressed fans from Ireland, Europe and to New Zealand.
Leinster appreciation shared across Celtic regions
Long-time Munster fan Mick O’Brien is unreserved in his admiration of the team of the decade. He told to LWOR that “looking back over the last 10 years of professional rugby at club level, and ignoring the international games, who do I think was the team of the decade? For me, it has to be Leinster.
“European cup winners on 4 occasions, beaten finalists in 2019 only failed to qualify for the knockout stages in 2013 and 2016, though they did win the Challenge cup in 2013.
“They’ve won the Celtic League from 2017 onwards, only in 2015 did they fail to reach the knockout stages. Inspirational coaches like Michael Cheika, Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt have been at the helm and all have had success, but for mine, the coaching ticket of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have been the best of a talented lot.
“Their academy is going from strength to strength with some amazing talent breaking into the first-choice squad. To be able to compete at European and domestic competitions at the very highest level, over the last decade shows how good Leinster are as a club, not only on the field but off the field too.
“Consistency is key and Leinster has it in abundance. A big part of that success is the fans, they have massive support for all games, breaking records for attendance on a number of occasions.
“As a Munster (and rugby) supporter and former player, I look on with envy at the success they’ve had in the last decade. Well deserved.”
Leinster looks to continue their Status
New stars like Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose and James Ryan have stepped up and helped reach further Champions Cup success in 2018.
To top it all, Leinster has won all of their games in the current 2019/20 season, including all four Champions Cup games to top our Power Rankings. Another league and European double are certainly [potentially] on the cards.
Other contenders for Rugby Team of the Decade:
Toulon (French Top14/ERPC)
Credentials: three European Cups, one league title
Rugby’s version of the Real Madrid Galacticos, Toulon and it’s owner Mourad Boudjellal has assembled an all-star squad that conquered Europe from 2013-2015.
Whilst money certainly helped, this Toulon side has far exceeded the achievements of preceding teams at the Stade Mayol, despite them having equal or better credentials. During this period senior stars from around the world came together to dominate in Europe.
The likes of World Cup winners Johnny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman, and Bryan Habana had nothing to prove here. Yet they joined the collective group and become the first team to win the European three years in a row; a feat yet to be beaten.
Credentials: three European Cups, five league titles
The premier club in England, who has dominated the Premiership in the second half of the decade and won the Champions Cup in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Of course, Saracens’ successes have been recently overshadowed by salary cap breaches that landed them unprecedented punishments. This is now an off-field matter as the 2019/20 squad fights to haul the team off the bottom of the Premiership and avoid relegation.
They could yet still win the Champions Cup this season; a testament to their squad ethos and ability.
These teams from the northern hemisphere compete against the other regularly. Yet further south, others may consider one of the Super Rugby teams, to be a candidate for TOTY.
Crusaders (Super Rugby)
Credentials: three Super Rugby titles, repeated playoff finalists
This decade has followed on from one where the Crusaders would have easily taken the title from 2000-2009. Their success then was clear for all to see, yet in this last decade they have not been able to ‘seal the deal’.
Unlucky at the start of the decade, with the Christchurch earthquakes meaning the Crusaders had no ‘home ground’ yet still reached the final. And the calibre of the players then included Richie McCaw, Justin Marshall, and Dan Carter. Those All Blacks players underlying value, saw the side respected universally, even before teams faced them on the field.
The coaching change, with Todd Blackadder stepping away, allowed Scott Robertson to assume the helm. The new management also saw new players driving the side, with Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody, and Codie Taylor joined Sam Whitelock in growing new confidence.
No longer would they succumb to internal pressure, as in 2017 they won the franchises eighth title away from home. That set in motion a dominant period, where higher standing allowed them to host two trophy finals. Winning both, it was a rare three-peat.
Great but not great enough record to shift Leinster as rugby Team of the Decade.
Main photo credit: Embed from Getty Images