Sunday 25 August 2019

Leinster v Saracens: Stuart Lancaster backs Blues attack to come good in crunch final

Josh van der Flier, pictured celebrating after Adam Byrne scored a try against Toulouse in round 5, will be wary of Cheslin Kolbe’s threat. Photo: Sportsfile
Josh van der Flier, pictured celebrating after Adam Byrne scored a try against Toulouse in round 5, will be wary of Cheslin Kolbe’s threat. Photo: Sportsfile
‘It’s the biggest game of the season, by a country mile,’ says Leinster’s senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

There is no favourite for Saturday's Champions Cup final; the bookies have yet to come down on either side.

Leinster are embracing the idea that this is the battle of the two best teams in Europe, and they are quietly confident their attacking strengths can break the Saracens machine and become the most successful team in the tournament's history.

They know they will have to play the game of their lives, but rather than be daunted by the challenge they are embracing it.

In their semi-final win in Coventry, the English champions suffocated Munster; combining their ruthless breakdown work, an intelligent kicking game, a strong defence and a relentless attack to earn a comprehensive 32-16 win.

No one has come close to the team who claimed the 2016 and 2017 Champions Cups this season, but the 2018 champions beat them en route to their title and will puff out their chests rather than go into the shells.

Experience tells them that that's what is needed to overcome an opponent of this quality.

Toughest

"Every game feels like that when you get to this level," Stuart Lancaster said when asked if this is the toughest task he's faced in club coaching.

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"Toulouse felt like that in the semi-final. You see what they've done in the Top 14 and you're thinking 'jeez, if we don't get our defence sorted here we won't be making the final'.

"So I don't think you put a score on it, if you like, and say 'this is the biggest one', in the context of both teams, it's the biggest game of the season without a doubt, by a country mile.

"It's the Champions Cup final and it's the two best teams in the final. Saracens have won all their pool games, two great quarter-final, semi-final wins.

"I remember we did the same last year, and it came down to 78 minutes 30 seconds, when we took the lead in the final, so what happens prior to the final, it's not irrelevant, but it's what happens on the day that will ultimately decide it."

Lancaster knows Saturday's opponents well and is an admirer of the set-up they've put together.

"They've a very good defence, it's very well coached and disciplined," he said.

"You go through the defence coaches at the club; Andy Farrell leading to Paul Gustard leading to Alex Sanderson; they're definitely very good defensively, they're very good at playing the patient game and building pressure on the opposition.

"Owen (Farrell) is a world-class kicker, so if you're ill-disciplined, they build three points, six points, nine points... They're happy to play the territory game, they've got patience there, but in attack I think they've really improved the quality of their starter plays, they've got the ability to play a power game, and with two ball players - at least two, but two very, very good players like Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, they can kill you in the unstructured part of the game as well.

"So you can see by the way they played how well coached and well organised they are.

"You've got to be good at everything, we've got to be able to defend their threats, obviously, the aerial threat, but equally we have to impose a Leinster game on to their defence as well.

"But you talk about the quality of Saracens; we've scored the most tries in the pools over the last three years, we've scored the most tries in the PRO14.

"You know, we'd back our attack as well. It's the two best teams in the final. We're a good attacking team, they're a good attacking team."

Leinster's mission is to not allow their opponents to build a lead.

Playing against Mark McCall's team is hard enough without having to chase them as they try to pick you off.

"Munster are the same, actually, (a team) who plays a pressure game, who build their game based on territory, as well as obviously power and footballing ability," Lancaster said.

"It plays into their hands because you end up having to chase the game.

Impossible

"Now, it's not impossible to do, because I've seen teams do it and we've done it against teams, when you've fallen behind and have to catch up.

"But it's definitely not the way you want to do it because you end up then tending to have to overplay in your own half to get the opportunity in their half, which actually plays into their hands."

That's where Leinster's array of attacking weapons comes in.

Munster would admit that they failed to fire a shot at the Ricoh Arena and while they defended brilliantly and hung in there for the first half, they couldn't sustain their effort and eventually fell away.

With Jamison Gibson-Park not quite recovered from his hamstring issue, the explosive James Lowe looks set to start having scored a try in the quarter-final last season and starred against Toulouse.

"He's one of many players, I'd say, in the Leinster backline or in the Leinster side who can cause trouble to any team," Lancaster said.

"As I said before, you don't score the number of tries we've scored by playing conservatively, but you've also got to hit the right balance.

"So, whether it's James Lowe or Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose or Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath, any of those backs, Rob Kearney from 15, bringing him into the game more than we have done recently, I think they're all part of the equation for us.

"We go back to the quarter-final last year when we beat them in the Aviva, it took us a long time to break them down but we got there in the end."

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