Even after a much-changed team dismantled Munster, Stuart Lancaster’s Monday morning review was, as usual, more about where Leinster can improve rather than patting themselves on the back.
“You’d think we had lost,” Lancaster says. The pursuit of excellence demands as much. When everyone within the organisation is held accountable for their own role, it is perhaps no surprise that a young, inexperienced team can click so seamlessly into gear and barely miss a beat.
Their task this week is to prepare the frontliners for the biggest game of the season by running as La Rochelle in training. Those players may not get the glory in Marseille on Saturday, yet they each play a vital role behind the scenes.
That’s what makes Leinster such a well-oiled machine, with Lancaster to the fore in terms of the tactical innovation, and Leo Cullen expertly managing a squad that has now used 60 players this season.
Even for two coaches who have been involved in their fair share of big days over the years, the unmistakable buzz of a Heineken Champions Cup week is enough to stir the soul of the most experienced.
With such lofty expectations, however, comes major pressure, and like Cullen, Lancaster has felt the pain of defeat enough to know how your best-laid plans can quickly be ripped up.
“Every defeat I’ve been involved in sticks in my mind more than the wins if I’m being honest,” Lancaster admits.
“I’ve been lucky in that we’ve won a Champions Cup final here in Leinster and we’ve won four PRO14 trophies. But equally we’ve lost two semi-finals in the first year, a final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final, so every one of those sticks in my mind including the La Rochelle defeat.
“That’s what you work for. You work through the season. You build towards this goal and it comes after 80 minutes. Of course, it sticks in your mind.
“We’re fully respectful of the quality La Rochelle have in their team. We think they have improved since last year and obviously they beat us fair and square and there’s no complaints from our end about that. I think their evolution has been good. I think ours has been good. We’ve been tested in different ways but we still want to put our best game on in the final.
“They have a powerful scrum, very good defensive organisation, excellent breakdown threats, great offloading game and powerful runners who can kill you in two or three phases so … we know how much it meant to them last year to beat us and we know how much that hurts. We have evolved, I think they have as well so we’ll see.”
Pressure can do strange things, especially when the stakes are high. They don’t come much higher than a European final, as Leinster target their fifth star, which would see Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy become the most decorated players in the tournament’s history. But, as Leinster found out last year, La Rochelle are formidable opponents under Ronan O’Gara. “It’s pressure, isn’t it,” Lancaster adds.
“It exists in all sports at the highest end. You draw on your own experience in terms of how to coach well in the week, get that bit right the bits we can control as coaches, making sure that we don’t over-complicate things in the week of a game.
“You also draw on the players’ experience as well. It’s a very experienced playing group now. We’ve won lots of finals, we’ve lost as well along the way.
“We’ve won in France and lost in France so that experience I think counts for a lot as well in preparation but nothing prepares you really until you walk out in front of 60-odd thousand people and 28 degrees and suddenly you’ve got massive bodies whacking into you.
“It’s rolling with the punches, making sure you adapt within the game and you stay calm and keep in control of your emotions. That’s key to success in winning finals, but it’s easier said than done.
“We can look, including myself and the coaches, from the outside but unless you are one of those 15 players stood in that tunnel before walking out, nothing really prepares a player for that until they’ve actually been through a final themselves.”