Sunday 30 April 2017

Lancaster: Leinster driven by push for fourth dimension

Blues coach vows to attack Clermont from the off in Sunday's semi-final

Luke McGrath at Leinster training in UCD yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke McGrath at Leinster training in UCD yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

They will occupy the home dressing-rooms at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon on Sunday, but that's where the comforts will end for Leinster. Their travelling supporters will do their best to make their voices heard, but old ground will be yellow from top to toe as the Clermont fans mobilise for the three-hour round trip.

Lyon's lion's den awaits, but the prospect of facing one of Europe's most formidable outfits in a hostile environment will not change the three-times champions' approach, according to Stuart Lancaster, who is vowing that his side will stay true to their attacking philosophy in their bid to reach the Champions Cup final for the first time since 2012.

“I think you’ve got to, really,” Lancaster (p) said. Photo: Sportsfile
“I think you’ve got to, really,” Lancaster (p) said. Photo: Sportsfile

That season Joe Schmidt's team won their third European title in four seasons, cementing their dynasty status.

There has been plenty of change since that last title. Only five of the starters from Bordeaux are available this week.

Yet Lancaster says the drive to match Toulouse's record haul of four European titles is driving the efforts this week despite the turnover in personnel.

Impressed

"Since I've been here, I've been unbelievably impressed with the quality of players that are here, the mindset to want to get better and, also, the mindset to go to a fourth European Cup final," he said. "It is a massive, massive driver for the players.

"The players, quite rightly, are very proud and the players who played in those finals are very proud of what they have achieved in the past. They want to do it again for the fourth time.

"It is only Toulouse who have won the European Cup four times. That is the big, big driver for them. I can't fault the players. They've been outstanding."

Leinster have been back to the semi-finals once since, taking Toulon to extra-time having gone toe to toe with their opponents' power game in 2015 until Bryan Habana's try ultimately decided matters.

Matt O'Connor's approach was to try to match the enormous French side's power head on, but it appears that this week the Blues will look to cut a swathe through Franck Azema's star-studded team.

"I think you've got to, really," Lancaster (left) said. "You've got to be aware when you're playing any team in France not to give them a start. "That allows them to build momentum and belief in their game but there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we have a positive mindset to play the game from the first to the 80th minute, we can cause some problems. We saw both in the qualifying rounds and in the Guinness PRO12.

"We wouldn't have scored 86 tries by accident."

The 'senior coach' is respectful of Clermont's array of threats and has been digging into their back-catalogue of work. In particular, he references the 2015 semi-final when they beat Saracens 13-9 in Saint Etienne.

Yet he is quick to remind those listening of the quality of player available in this Leinster squad, something he hopes is re-inforced when Warren Gatland names his Lions squad in London tomorrow.

"I just think the belief that we have got in the team, the quality of players… we have got a lot of players here who, hopefully during the course of the week, will be announced as Lions," he said.

"You've got quite a few in the mix. You've got a lot of international players and a lot of talented young players who perhaps haven't played in these big European games but have demonstrated consistently this season that they can step up. We certainly believe we can do well in this game.

"But, to give a benchmark, Saracens were playing fantastic rugby in 2015 (before playing Clermont in the semi-final) but didn't manage to achieve the win."

Leinster are due to train tomorrow, but will break around mid-day to allow the players in contention to tune in to Gatland's big reveal.

Lancaster doesn't see it overly distracting from the week's primary focus, however. A lot will depend on how it plays out selection-wise," he conceded. "I think the players are focused on one goal this week. The players can't control what will ultimately happen with the Lions.

"Ultimately, once the decision is made, they can't affect the outcome. It is getting on with the task at hand."

That task is a daunting one, but Lancaster is unfazed.

"Their attacking threat is significantly higher than any other team we've faced so far this season," he conceded.

"Particularly at home, with the energy and momentum a crowd can give, it is going to be a huge test for us defensively. On the flip side, I would argue the Top-14 sides defend differently to the way we defend.

"I think if we can get the width in our defensive line and our line-speed right, then we can force errors as well as deal with the threats that they've got coming at us.

"They have got X-factor players all over the park and their motivation playing in front of their own fans will be huge so it is as tough a challenge as you are going to get in European rugby."

Although Dave Kearney has been ruled out with the ankle injury he suffered in the victory over Connacht on Saturday night, in-form Jack Conan is expected to be fit enough to start at No 8.

Irish Independent

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