Sport Rugby

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Lancaster: We're confident in our ability to turn it on for a big game

Stuart Lancaster has warned his team that Toulouse can inflict damage in many different ways. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster has warned his team that Toulouse can inflict damage in many different ways. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

WHEN Leinster's Ireland internationals returned to UCD after the Six Nations, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster called them in for a meeting to assess the damage and plot a route forward.

In Joe Schmidt's words, the defeat to England left a number of leading lights "a bit broken" and the loss to Wales in Cardiff can't have helped their confidence either.

As bulk suppliers to the national team, Leinster were always going to suffer a knock-on effect.

Two weeks after the humbling Principality Stadium loss, the European champions returned to Champions Cup action against Ulster and barely got out alive.

Most of their front-liners have been kept on ice since, while their captain and talisman Johnny Sexton has not been seen in action ahead of Sunday's semi-final against Toulouse.

Compared to this point of last season, when Leinster's Grand Slam contingent blew Scarlets away at the Aviva Stadium, there are more doubts about their ability to go all the way.

Sympathy

Other provinces won't have sympathy, but the departures of Joey Carbery, Isa Nacewa and Jordi Murphy have weakened their squad and while they have secured PRO14 play-off qualification with rounds to spare and qualified from the Champions Cup pool stages with relative ease, they don't look as fluent as they did a year ago.

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Still, Sexton is back; as are Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner and Tadhg Furlong is fit despite going off with a knee injury on Saturday.

And Lancaster believes that the leading men can rise to the occasion.

"I think people's memories are reasonably short because in the Wasps game we played some outstanding rugby, I thought," he said.

"The first game was probably our best performance of the season.

"Then, we went to Toulouse and the disappointing thing about that performance was we gave them such an early lead, got back to 27-21, and ultimately lost 28-27 on the intercept.

"The two Bath games - the one at Bath was tough on the back of the November internationals but we played well at the Aviva to beat them by 40-odd points.

"We beat Toulouse at home and then put 40 points on Wasps away from home.

"The Ulster game is the most recent game on people's minds and Ulster's results recently, particularly last weekend, gives you an idea of how good we felt Ulster were going into it and how well Ulster played on that particular game.

"So, yeah, it's a completely different scenario from last year. We're the champions, we're the hunted rather than the hunters and that makes a difference.

"But we're confident in our ability to turn it on for a big game. We'll need to this week."

All eyes will be on Sexton who was last seen waging a war against himself as his form deserted him.

In many ways the World Player of the Year is emblematic of the struggling Ireland contingent whose confidence took a hit in the early spring.

"We had a good talk about the Six Nations with all the Ireland players when they came back into camp," he said. "It is important to take the learning from them and update them on what we're doing at Leinster. We did that pretty successfully.

"Johnny's been in and around the camp the whole time. It's not like he's not been here.

"He has had his chance to get ahead in his preparation for Toulouse, alongside Garry (Ringrose), James Ryan, Jack Conan, the lads that didn't play at the weekend.

"He's very much in leadership mode. I'm sure he'll train well this afternoon. He certainly trained well last week. He looked fine.

"It was different (last year), obviously. You're going into the quarter-final against Saracens last year and boys have come off five games unbeaten with Ireland, they've won a Grand Slam.

"This time, on the back of the Wales game, it was different, no doubt.

"We still found a way to win and towards the end of the game we began to exert more control and dominance.

"It was a real battle that game, conceding the early try obviously put us under pressure.

"So, it has been different this year but there's more than enough belief in the players and the coaching group that we can deliver the performance.

"But we're by no means complacent."

That's because they know how good Sunday's opponents are having already faced them twice at the pool stage and watched them overcome Racing 92 in the quarter-final despite Zach Holmes' red card.

"The game we lost over in Toulouse was a disappointing one for us," Lancaster said.

"They can score tries in so many different ways.

"They can overpower you. They can beat you on the counter-attack.

"Their ability to keep the ball alive and generate successions of tries on momentum... if you look at the rankings of who has made the most line-breaks in the Top 14? It's Toulouse.

"Who's made the most metres? It's Toulouse. Who has the most defenders beaten? It's Toulouse. They just have an unbelievable chemistry through the team in how they create momentum in attack.

"They have a real solidity in defence now as well which I thought really showed its worth against Racing in the quarter-final. It's a big week for us in terms of our defence, there's no doubt.

"But also, it's not generating opportunities for them to launch their counter-attack by being effective with the ball as well.

"What we did well in the RDS is we played good, attacking rugby but we retained possession well and built pressure on them. It took us until 60, 70 minutes to break them but we got there in the end."

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