Stuart Lancaster’s attention to Leinster illustrates the club’s approach to success | Champions Cup
JTo sum up why Leinster have been head and shoulders above the rest in Europe this season, and why they head into Saturday’s Champions Cup final against La Rochelle as favourites, Stuart Lancaster provides the example. perfect.
I worked with Stuart during his time in England and his coaching abilities, above all, were evident. The problem was that he had inherited a team that, from a PR point of view and from a sporting point of view, had failed in the 2011 World Cup. He took it upon himself to try to change everything, from making sure the players reconnect with the fans, to overhauling all the facets of a team that had underperformed going out in the quarter-finals.
It was his first international job and it says a lot about his character that he wanted to take it all on himself. In the end, that proved too much of a challenge, but the reason he’s done so well with Leinster, where he’s responsible for shaping the attack, is that he’s taken all that experience and… has channeled into a single aspect of the club. That’s typical of what Leinster is – so many good people who focus very well on their specific job and the ripple effect is the synchronicity of the way they play. This makes him such a difficult opponent to stop.
It sounds simple, but they have brilliant players, brilliant coaches and an infrastructure that allows them to be the best version of themselves. When I say infrastructure, I mean a setup that allows their first team to stay at home rather than go to South Africa for United Rugby Championship matches. Spending that time working on unit skills, recovery, cohesion – you can’t overstate the good it does for a team. They do indeed go into those mini-seasons where they’re tweaking everything again and it’s plain and obvious to see when they return to competitive rugby. You just have to look at the two No. 15s. Jordan Larmour was the new kid on the block, Billy Whizz, then he got injured and you have Hugo Keenan who was one of the standout players in the Six Nation. It’s a real talent incubator.
I played in the Premiership for 14 years and during that time you did all your technical work and your team units worked, or the majority, in pre-season. Then you try to fill up as you go, while trying to stay fresh, going Saturday-Saturday-Saturday. It was incredibly tough, but Leinster have so many weeks where they can rest, recover and hone their skills and craftsmanship. When I look at their pack, I can’t think of another set of strikers in the club game with so many game and ball carrying options. It’s a clear product of the work they do in these mini-seasons.
On the other hand, the French calendar is implacable. The fact that Victor Vito is absent for the final, having suffered an injury in a must-see league game against Stade Français last week, is a good example of this. In the URC, Leinster do not have this concern. It would be disrespectful to call it a second team as it was still littered with international players and they always emerged victorious, but the fact that they were able to rest the side that lined up in Marseille against Munster last week is a clear advantage. I can’t stress enough that I’m not saying that’s the only reason for their success, just that it provides them with an environment in which to thrive. As an Englishman who has played in the Premiership for so long, I can only applaud the way Ireland have put their structure in place to allow for this.
There’s a bit of pessimism about English clubs in Europe at the moment, but I think it’s too early to see any long-term decline there, whether that’s due to the salary cap reduction or any something else. Rugby can be very cyclical and rather than the demise of the Premiership, I see European competitions reflecting what we are seeing internationally at the moment. Three French clubs and an Irish team in the two finals reflect how these two national teams were a cut above in this year’s Six Nations. It doesn’t happen overnight, you have to put in place the pillars of success and Ireland and France have succeeded.
I was listening to Pep Guardiola talk about the England football team recently. He reflected on how they made it to the semi-finals of a major tournament and then to a final in which they lost on penalties and predicted that once they finally cleared the hurdle, they will have something intangible that will make them think they can go on earning a lot more. Essentially, defeats sting but they help build character and Leinster are a prime example of that given how difficult it was for them to win their first European title in 2009.
They have suffered humiliating defeats since then, including losing the 2019 final to Saracens and they were overpowered by La Rochelle in the semi-finals last season. Although it will add a feeling of fuel, they don’t want to be haunted by these losses. This game has to be about excitement and achievement and they have players who have been part of their previous wins on this side to help with that. On the day, this may well be the most important factor.