Thursday 22 March 2018

'This team can compete with any in Europe' - Stuart Lancaster in Leinster rallying call

Stuart Lancaster addressing the media at yesterday’s Leinster press conference. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster addressing the media at yesterday’s Leinster press conference. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

How the world turns. Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the date that Stuart Lancaster's world came tumbling down spectacularly, the debris of defeat crashing all around him following his England side's eviction from their home World Cup at the hands of Australia.

One year on, he finds himself in another land, directing many of the coaching operations at Leinster, launching a plan that he hopes will become a more successful exit strategy, only this time from a fiendishly difficult Champions Cup pool.

Ironically, Irish sides should be better prepared for European combat this season precisely because there will be no World Cup to pine over; unlike their English and French counterparts, Ireland's international contingent were last year withheld until virtually the eve of the Champions Cup.

Lancaster, unwittingly, touches on his own personal disappointment when asked to assess the state of readiness within the Irish game for Europe compared to last season.

"Whenever you lose in a World Cup, whether it is in the Pool stages or the final, there is an inevitable emotional dip," he muses.


"I know what that looks and feels like to win the big games, but also when you lose the big games how small the margins are."

He has, of course moved on, but his reflections on how last year his countrymen, as well as the French, between them provided all eight Champions Cup quarter-finalists, were so much better prepared, remain pertinent.

"My recollection of last year, certainly from an England perspective, was that the boys went back from the World Cup and probably had three league games before Europe," he says.

"Whereas the Irish players had very little time to readjust back to club rugby. And I think if you don't start well in Europe it becomes very hard then to recover momentum."

Lancaster still commutes back and forth to England but he is slowly immersing himself in the ways and wiles of Irish life; he even tentatively admits to grappling with the rules of GAA, having caught a snatch of Saturday's All-Ireland replay following Leinster's latest win in Cardiff.

Such is the peripatetic life of the coach's career where, as he has already discovered, success or failure can be life-changing.

"It came very late, this opportunity for me," he explains. "It's rare that a coach joins a team after one game into the season.

"There's eight months of the season to go, so I'm very much of the view 'let's see how it goes'."

At the moment, Leinster are certainly going the right way, stumbling only in Glasgow as the intensity ramps up again at the Aviva. In Lancaster's first full season as head coach, he led England to a first Six Nations win in a decade here in 2013; two years later, Ireland gained revenge.

"In the UK and Ireland, Leinster and Munster is top table in terms of derbies and so it should be," he says. "It will be nice to go back to the Aviva. I've not been there for a while and such a big crowd will make a fantastic occasion."

This season, he has returned to other familiar venues - Murrayfield to Cardiff's Millennium neighbour, the Arms Park - in an unfamiliar guise. His aim is to ensure that Leinster themselves return to international standard.

"My first game in charge against Glasgow felt like a big game because of the late start to the season," he says.

"We've made good progress. My benchmark, having coached international rugby, is to get the team to play at something equivalent to international standard.

"And if I can apply that benchmark here, then that will hopefully take the team to the top end of their European table and obviously to the top end of the Pro12 table, which is where we want to be.

"It will be a huge occasion. My background over here is limited in terms of club rugby, but my perception having been watching from afar over the last nine years of my coaching career is this is right up there with any of the games I have managed."

The intensity grows by the week; Europe beckons and Lancaster feels Leinster can improve upon last season's rare pool exit.

"The standard in the top end of Europe has improved," he says. "But being involved with this team now for two or three weeks, and having seen some of the top teams in England in action, I think this team can compete with any in Europe on its best day."

Irish Independent

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